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Smith v. Conagra Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

October 27, 2014

MICHELE SMITH Plaintiff
v.
CONAGRA FOODS, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

MATTHEW W. BRANN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Pending before this Court are two Motions for Summary Judgment on the Amended Complaint (ECF No. 14), one filed by Plaintiff Michele Smith (ECF No. 27) and the other filed by Defendant ConAgra Foods, Inc. (ECF No. 29). Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint seeks a reversal of the decision by the Defendant to deny benefits allegedly owed to her as the beneficiary under her husband’s retirement plan, pursuant to § 501(a)(1)(B) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (hereinafter, “ERISA”).

After Defendant filed an Answer with affirmative defenses (ECF No. 19) and discovery was concluded, the parties simultaneously filed Motions for Summary Judgment on February 7, 2014 (ECF Nos. 27 and 29), both asserting that they are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint. Pl.’s. Mot. Summ. J., Feb. 7, 2014, ECF No. 27; Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., Feb. 7, 2014, ECF No. 29. The matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for disposition.

In accordance with the following reasoning, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted and Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment is denied. Plaintiff’s claim for retirement benefits under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., is dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Michele Smith was married to Barry Snyder, a former employee of Defendant ConAgra Foods, Inc. Def.’s Statement of Facts ¶ 2, February 7, 2014, ECF No. 30 (hereinafter “Def.’s SOF”). By correspondence dated August 27, 2010, Defendant notified Barry Snyder that he was entitled to a benefit from the IHF coordinated Bargaining Pension Plan (hereinafter the “Plan”). Pl.’s Statement of Facts ¶ 2, Ex. A, at 176, February 7, 2014, ECF No. 28 (hereinafter “Pl.’s SOF”). Enclosed with this correspondence was a Benefit Notice and Election Package (hereinafter the “Pension Election Documents”) prepared by Defendant which described the options available to Mr. Snyder under the Plan and required that he make a pension election within thirty days of receipt of the packet. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 3, Ex. A, at 176-98. The Pension Election Documents further included a document pertaining to “Information for Spouses” in order to assist employees in understanding the impact on their spouses of choosing each particular option. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 10, Ex. A, at 184-86. In addition to the Pension Election Documents, Mr. Snyder was provided a copy of the Summary Plan Description (hereinafter the “SPD”), which is a statutorily mandated summary of the Plan that must contain certain categories of enumerated information. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 15-16, Ex. A, at 110-36; ERISA § 102.

The Plan is a long document which describes the employees’ retirement options in detail. Section 6.5 of the Plan describes the Refund Option, which is the option at issue in this case. It says that a participant may elect to receive a life annuity until his Normal Retirement Date (hereinafter his “NRD”). Then, at his NRD, the participant can: (1) continue to receive the same life annuity; (2) receive a reduced life annuity for his life and then at his death his beneficiary will receive the Initial Death Benefit[1], minus payments the participant received during his lifetime; or (3) he can receive a single lump sum payment equal to the Initial Death Benefit. Def.’s SOF ¶ 6, Ex. A, at 32-33. This option was to take effect on the participant’s NRD, which according to Section 2.20 of the Plan is the “first day of the calendar month coincident with or next following the Participant’s 65thbirthday.” Def.’s SOF ¶ 7, Ex. A, at 11. Section 6.1 elucidates further on the Refund Option, stating that, “Prior to the date an Option elected pursuant to Subsection 6.2, 6.3, 6.4 or 6.5 becomes effective the following conditions will apply: (A) If the Participant dies prior to the effective date of any Option, the Option will become void and no benefits will be payable under the Plan.” Def.’s SOF ¶ 5, Ex. A, at 30.

The SPD that was provided to Mr. Snyder was generally consistent with the language and meaning of the Refund Option as described in the Plan; however, it made no mention of whether benefits would accrue to the participant’s beneficiary in the event the participant died before his NRD. Pl.’s SOF ¶¶ 19-20, Ex. A, at 125.

In contrast, the Pension Election Documents, which were provided to Plaintiff and her husband as a tool to help them understand their options under the Plan, directly conflicted with the language and meaning of the description of the Refund Option under the Plan. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 8, Ex. A, at 181. Unlike the Plan, the Pension Election Documents stated that if the participant should die before his NRD, the participant’s beneficiary would receive a lump sum payment equal to his Initial Death Benefit. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 8, Ex. A, at 181. At the same time, the Pension Election Documents were explicit in explaining that “this document contains only a summary of the pension payment options available to [the participant] and in the event of any conflict between the official Plan documents and this Explanation of Pension Election form, the Plan document shall govern.” Def.’s SOF ¶ 16, Ex. A, at 180-82.

After meeting with Alice Satteson, the human relations representative for the Defendant, Mr. Snyder elected the Refund Option and designated Plaintiff as his beneficiary under the Plan. Pl.’s SOF ¶¶ 23-25, Ex. A, at 203, 207. As applied to Mr. Snyder, the Refund Option provided for an Initial Death Benefit in the amount of $82, 848.38, a monthly payment up to age 65 in the amount of $585.37, and a monthly payment after age 65 in the amount of $554.76. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 23, Ex. A, at 203.

This choice was particularly important to Plaintiff and her husband, given that the couple knew that Mr. Snyder had terminal cancer and likely would not live until his NRD. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 26. It appears that Plaintiff and her husband relied primarily on the summary Pension Election Documents when they selected the Refund Option under the Plan. It is unclear whether they considered the SPD or the Plan at all in making their decision. They did, however, consult with Barry Snyder’s union president as to whether Plaintiff would receive the Initial Death Benefit upon Mr. Snyder’s death and were assured that she would. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 29; Smith Aff. 3. Defendants did pay Mr. Snyder’s monthly retirement benefits from the time of his retirement until his death, on July 24, 2011 at the age of 64. Def.’s SOF ¶ 20-21.

All of the foregoing facts are undisputed by Plaintiff and Defendant. However, the parties dispute the implication of two letters sent by Defendant to Plaintiff, one before Mr. Snyder’s death and one after, as well as the intention behind Defendant’s modification of the SPD in 2013.

On March 17, 2011, while Mr. Snyder was still alive, Defendant sent a letter to Mr. Snyder which stated:

After performing a recent review of the ConAgra Foods (IHF) Coordinated Bargaining Retirement Plan commencement package, we determined that the description of the Refund Option inadvertently indicated that the Initial Death Benefit would be payable to your beneficiary if you were to pass away prior to age 65. In accordance with the IHF Coordinated Bargaining Pension Plan, the Initial Death Benefit is not payable to a beneficiary in the event the participant passes away prior to their Normal Retirement Date. The Initial Death Benefit is payable to a beneficiary only if the participant passes away after their Normal Retirement Date.

Def.’s SOF ¶ 17, Ex. A, at 221. Enclosed with the letter was updated paperwork which clarified that under the Refund Option no benefits would be payable upon the death of the participant prior to age 65. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 31-33, Ex. B, at 222-50. After once again speaking with his union representative, Mr. Snyder elected not to complete the paperwork and to retain the option that he had already selected. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 35, Ex. B.

Plaintiff maintains that Defendant used this letter in an attempt to unilaterally change the terms of the benefit that Mr. Snyder had selected and on which he had received some payment. Pl.’s SOF ¶¶ 30-33. She argues that this letter was a “sly attempt[] to obtain new signatures from Barry [Snyder] and Plaintiff on subsequent forms seeking to modify the terms of the option chosen by Barry [Snyder], ” which “would have eliminated Plaintiff’s entire benefit. Pl.’s Mem. Supp. Summ. J. 11. Defendant, on the other hand, asserts that the letter merely informed Plaintiff and her husband that the Pension Election Documents were incorrect on the issue of whether Mr. Snyder’s beneficiary would receive a payment in the event he died prior to his NRD. Def.’s Mem. Opp’n Summ. J. 15-18. According to Defendant, the March 2011 letter also gave Mr. Snyder an opportunity to change his payment election if he wanted to do so in light of Defendant’s clarification on that issue. Id.

Plaintiff also references another letter sent by the Defendants, this time after Mr. Snyder had passed away, which may have similarly addressed the same issue. Pl.’s SOF ¶ 45. However, because this letter is entirely absent from the record and the parties do not explain its contents in any depth, other than through reference to their own interpretations of its significance, this Court remains unsure what information was contained within. Nevertheless, Plaintiff argues that Defendant used this letter to again try to convince her to agree to a newly modified benefit option without first contacting the union as was required ...


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