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Gregory Smith v. West Manheim Township

October 25, 2011

GREGORY SMITH,
PLAINTIFF
v.
WEST MANHEIM TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner

MEMORANDUM

This is a civil action filed by plaintiff Gregory Smith ("Smith") alleging that defendant West Manheim Township ("West Manheim") wrongfully terminated his employment in violation of Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1140. Presently before the court is a motion (Doc. 6) to dismiss Smith's complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the motion.

I. Background*fn1

Smith began his employment with West Manheim on May 15, 1985, as an equipment operator and laborer. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 7, 8). West Manheim offers employees ERISA benefits including but not limited to: medical insurance, a vision plan, life insurance, short and long-term disability insurance, and a pension plan. (Id. ¶ 14). Smith and his wife were beneficiaries of West Manheim's pension plan. (Id. ¶ 15).

On August 19, 2010, West Manheim gave Smith a written warning for "failure to follow directions." (Id. ¶ 10). The warning stated that "any further issues of this type within the next six months will result in disciplinary action - up to and including termination." (Id. ¶ 11). Smith avers that no issues of any type occurred during the next six months. (Id. ¶ 12). Smith alleges that on February 16, 2011, West Manheim terminated him pursuant to the written warning when he was ten months away from retirement. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 13).

On April 22, 2011, Smith filed suit against West Manheim. (Id.) In the complaint, Smith alleges that West Manheim violated Section 510 of ERISA by purportedly terminating him in retaliation for the use of ERISA benefits and in order to interfere with his use of ERISA benefits in the future. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 18). On June 13, 2011, West Manheim filed the instant motion (Doc. 6) to dismiss Smith's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. (See Docs. 7, 15, 16).

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)); see also Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts contained in the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide "the defendant notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint in the face of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must conduct a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, "the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'" Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ---U.S. ---, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1947 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; well-pleaded facts must be accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Id.; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the well-pleaded factual allegations have been isolated, the court must determine whether they are sufficient to show a "plausible claim for relief." Iqbal, --- U.S. ---, 129 S. Ct. at 1950 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"). A claim "has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, --- U.S. ---, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. When the complaint fails to present a prima facie case of liability, however, courts should generally grant leave to amend before dismissing a complaint. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).

III. Discussion

Section 510 of ERISA states:

It shall be unlawful for any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, discipline, or discriminate against a participant or beneficiary for exercising any right to which he is entitled under the provisions of an employee benefit plan . . . or for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of any right to which such participant may become entitled under the plan 29 U.S.C. § 1140. Smith alleges that West Manheim interfered with his attainment of ERISA benefits and that he was wrongfully discharged for his and/or his wife's past use of ERISA benefits. (See Doc. 1 ¶¶ 17, 18). West Manheim contends that Smith cannot state a claim upon which relief can be granted under either theory. (See Doc. 6 ¶¶ 4, 5).

A. ERISA Interference Claim

A plaintiff can establish a prima facie claim of ERISA interference by demonstrating: "(1) prohibited employer conduct (2) taken for the purpose of interfering (3) with the attainment of any right to which the employee may become entitled." Grogan v. Duane, Morris & Heckscher, No. 90-CV-4105, 1991 WL 98888, at *3 (E.D. Pa. June 4, 1991) (citing Gavalik v. Cont'l Can Co., 812 F.2d 834, 851-52 (3d Cir. 1987)). To demonstrate that an employer took action for the purpose of interfering with an ERISA right, a plaintiff must show the employer "had the specific intent to violate ERISA." Gavalik, 812 F.2d at 851 (citations and quotations omitted); see also DiFederico v. Rolm Co., 201 F.3d 200, 205 (3d Cir. 2000). Proof that termination ...


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