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Clark v. Greater Pennsylvania Carpenters'pension Fund

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 6, 2014

HAROLD E. CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
GREATER PENNSYLVANIA CARPENTERS' PENSION FUND and JAMES R. KLEIN Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

LISA PUPO LENIHAN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Summation

The Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff Harold E. Clark ("Retiree") will be granted in substantial part in accordance with the Order to be entered on this date, as the Greater Pennsylvania Carpenters' Pension Fund's (the "Fund") unambiguous language governing Retiree's early retirement benefits cannot be reasonably interpreted to support Defendants' suspension of Retiree's benefits during the employment at issue. Such employment is clearly neither (a) in an "industry" subject to a collective bargaining agreement with the Union nor (b) by an employer with a collective bargaining agreement with the Union. The Court further notes that the case has been focused and well briefed by both parties (given their respectively available factual and legal support). But it has been particularly well briefed by the Plaintiff, including initial analysis and responsiveness to Defendants' Brief in Opposition ("Defendant's Opposition").

The sole question before this Court is whether the Administrator's and/or Board of Trustees' interpretation of the Agreement as grounds for the suspension of Retiree's benefits was reasonable, under the applicable standard of review. As his current employer has no collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") with the Union, this question turns on whether Retiree's current employment constitutes employment " in an industry which is subject to a collective bargaining agreement" with the Union. See Agreement (Plaintiff's Support, Appendix Ex. A) (emphasis added). For the reasons inked in Plaintiff's briefs, and set forth below, the Court finds that the language of the Agreement is unambiguous and the interpretation proffered inconsistent with said language. It therefore finds the Defendants' suspension of benefits to have been arbitrary and capricious.

II. Factual and Procedural History

Prior to 2008, Retiree was employed by an employer with a collective bargaining agreement with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (the "Union"). Said employer contributed to the Fund, of which Defendant James R. Klein is Administrator. Retiree left that employment in approximately June, 2008, and became eligible for early retirement pension benefits pursuant to the Fund's Agreement and Declaration of Trust (the "Agreement").

In July, 2009 his monthly benefits were suspended pursuant to the Fund's interpretation of the Agreement's early retirement benefit provisions (Article VIII, Section 4), to-wit, that "payment to a retiree prior to age 65 shall be suspended during any period in which the participant returns to active employment in an industry which is subject to a collective bargaining agreement with the [Union] or returns to active service with an employer who has an agreement. That means that if you return to work in any job, union or non-union, in the construction industry anywhere after you begin receiving pension benefits, your benefits must be suspended."

Retiree was then, and remains, employed as Facility Manager by George Junior Republic ("GJR"), a private, non-profit residential treatment facility (including living facilities and educational, therapeutic, and continuing care programs) for delinquent/dependent boys aged 8-18. GJR has no agreement with the Union.[1] Retiree's duty as Facility Manager to "oversee all buildings, food, utilities, automobiles, and grounds" includes supervision of "procurement, maintenance, auto shop and project development", and the hiring/termination of, and ensurance of quality standards by, contractors; overseement of purchasing; and supervision of maintenance and other employees. See Plaintiff's Complaint; Plaintiff's Support at 13; Defendants' Opposition Exhibit A (May 6, 2010 Appeal Response by Defendants) at 2.

The requisite course of appeals timely followed Defendants' suspension of Retiree's benefits, and he has exhausted his administrative remedies. See Plaintiff's Support at 3-4. The Complaint in this Employee Income Retirement Security Act ("ERISA") action, brought under 29 U.S.C. Section 1132(a)(1)(B), was filed July 1, 2013. Defendants filed an Answer and Counterclaim, seeking a preliminary injunction, equitable restitution of $17, 961.38, and a constructive trust, for benefits paid while Clark was employed by GJR. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on December 2, 2013. He requests (a) a declaration of wrongful suspension of benefits; (b) an injunction; (c) prejudgment interest at the appropriate rate; (d) reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to 29 U.S.C. Section 1132(g)(1); (e) costs incurred; and (f) dismissal of Defendants' counterclaim (which counterclaim has since been withdrawn).[2]

III. Applicable Standards

A. General Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is proper if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In considering summary judgment, a court must draw all reasonable inferences from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the adversely-affected party. See, e.g. , Emerson Radio Corp. v. Orion Sales, Inc. , 253 F.3d 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2001). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Scott v. Harris , 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)).

B. Standard of Review of Administrator's Discretionary Determination

Absent a conflict of interest (as where, for example, a self-funding employer also administers its plan and makes benefit determinations as to which it has competing interests), an Administrator's interpretations of plan language and benefit determinations are generally subject to an "abuse of discretion" or "arbitrary and capricious" standard of review. See Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch , 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). Both of these phrases are understood to require a reviewing court to affirm the ...


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