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Gregory Smith v. West Manheim Township

August 31, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Presently before the court 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, 29 U.S.C. § 1140 ("ERISA"), and the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. ("FMLA"). West Manheim has filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 19) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History*fn1 Smith began his employment with West Manheim on May 15, 1985, working as an equipment operator and laborer. (Doc. 18, ¶¶ 7, 8). West Manheim offers employees ERISA benefits, including, inter alia: medical insurance, a vision plan, life insurance, both short and long-term disability benefits, and a pension plan. (Id. ¶ 30). Both Smith and his wife received various benefits through West Manheim's pension plan. (Id. ¶ 31).

On August 19, 2010, several months prior to Smith's termination, West Manheim issued Smith a written warning for "failure to follow directions." (Id. ¶ 14). The warning stated that "any further issues of this type within the next six months will result in disciplinary action being taken - up to and including termination." (Id. ¶ 15). Smith claims that this disciplinary action was unwarranted and that during his nearly twenty-six years of employment with West Manheim, he was repeatedly praised for his work performance. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 15).

On February 11, 2011, Smith was terminated from his employment with West Manheim. (Id. ¶ 17). This termination occurred within the six month probationary period outlined in his August 19, 2010 written warning. (Id.) Smith claims there were no other disciplinary issues during this period, but that he was purportedly terminated for "abuse of equipment" when a lawn mower under his charge became inoperable.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 18). Smith claims that disciplinary actions taken against him, particularly the imposition of the August 2010 probationary period, were pretextual and that West Manheim's true motive was to prevent Smith from using his disability and/or health benefits in violation of both ERISA and the FMLA.*fn3

Upon his termination from West Manheim, Smith alleges West Manheim informed him in writing that he would be "eligible for full retirement benefits, effective January 1, 2012." (Id. ¶ 25). According to Smith, "full retirement benefits" would have included one year of paid health insurance; however, Smith received only six weeks of paid health insurance. (Id. ¶ 26). Smith also claims that West Manheim terminated Smith before his 50th birthday, when he was eligible to receive retirement benefits, in violation of Section 510 of ERISA. (Id. ¶ 10). West Manheim also allegedly failed to inform Smith of the penalties associated with the election of immediate pension benefits in lieu of waiting until he had attained the age of fifty-nine and one-half. (Id. ¶ 25).

On April 22, 2011, Smith sued West Manheim. (Doc. 1). In his original complaint, Smith alleged violations of Section 510 of ERISA based on interference and retaliation. (SeeDoc. 1, Part V "ERISA Violations"). On June 13, 2011, West Manheim filed a motion dismiss (Doc. 6) Smith's original complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). On October 25, 2011, the court issued a memorandum and order granting the motion, but allowed Smith thirty (30) days to amend the complaint to correct deficiencies in both the interference and retaliation ERISA claims. (Doc. 17).

On November 23, 2011, Smith filed an amended complaint (Doc. 18), this time bringing claims for interference and retaliation under both ERISA and the FMLA. On December 7, 2011, West Manheim filed the instant motion to dismiss the amended complaint (Doc. 19) pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), followed by a brief in support filed on December 21, 2011 (Doc. 20).

On January 17, 2012, Smith filed a brief in opposition to the motion. (Doc. 26). In this brief, Smith notified the court that he is no longer pursuing an ERISA retaliation claim or any claims under the FMLA (see Doc. 20, Parts B-2 & C), leaving only Smith's ERISA interference claim to be decided.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) 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, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (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, 559 U.S. at 679 (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, 559 U.S. at 678. 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 ...

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