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Keiser v. Conagra Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 27, 2014

LINDA KEISER, Plaintiff
v.
CONAGRA FOODS, INC., Defendant

For Linda Keiser, Plaintiff: Amy R. Boring, LEAD ATTORNEY, Schemery Zicolello, Williamsport, PA; Michael Zicolello, SCHEMERY & ZICOLELLO, Williamsport, PA.

For Conagra Foods, Inc., Defendant: Melissa Z Baris, Husch & Eppenberger, LLC, St. Louis, MO; William P. Carlucci, Elion, Wayne, Grieco, Carlucci, Shipman, & Irwin, P.C., Williamsport, PA.

Page 400

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 bye Plaintiff Linda Keiser (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.

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(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 Linda Keiser was married to Marlin Keiser, 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 20, 2010, Defendant notified Marlin Keiser 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. Keiser 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. Keiser 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 live 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 65th birthday." Def.'s SOF ¶ 7, Ex. A, at 11. Section 6.1 elucidates further on the Refund Option by 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

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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. Keiser 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 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. Keiser elected the Refund Option and designated Plaintiff as his beneficiary under the Plan. Pl.'s SOF ¶ ¶ 22, 25, Ex. A, at 202-15. As applied to Mr. Keiser, the Refund Option provided for an Initial Death Benefit in the amount of $67,442.31, a monthly payment up to age 65 in the amount of $475.65, and a monthly payment after age 65 in the amount of $450.77. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 23, Ex. A, at 203.

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. Defendants did pay Mr. Keiser's monthly retirement benefits until his death on December 31, 2010, at the age of 62. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 26-27.

Following Mr. Keiser's death, Plaintiff called the Pension Center to apply for benefits under the Plan. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 29, Ex. B. The Pension Center advised her that all she would have to do was forward Mr. Keiser's death certificate and a check would be issued to her. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 30, Ex. B. Plaintiff made numerous calls to the Pension Center and to Defendant's headquarters where she was informed that there were problems processing payment. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 31-37, Ex. B.

On January 27, 2010, Defendant sent a letter to Plaintiff which advised her that no benefits were payable to her under the Refund Option since her husband had passed away before 65, his NRD. Def.'s SOF ¶ 19, Ex. A, at 224. However, Defendant later sent a superseding letter to Plaintiff on March 11, 2011 which informed her that though no benefits were payable to her under the Refund Option selected by her husband, it would pay her benefits under the default benefit method, the Qualified 50% Joint and Survivor Annuity. Def.'s SOF ¶ 20-21, Ex. A, at 233. This meant that Plaintiff would be eligible to receive a monthly benefit of $223.30 throughout her lifetime, if she signed and returned the enclosed documents. Def.'s SOF ¶ 23, Ex. A, at 233. Plaintiff chose not to sign the documents. Def.'s SOF ¶ 24.

All of the foregoing facts are undisputed by Plaintiff and Defendant. However, the

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parties dispute the implication of Defendant's March 11, 2011 correspondence with Plaintiff, as well as the intention behind Defendant's modification of the SPD in 2013.

Defendant's March 11, 2011 letter to Plaintiff stated:

While reviewing Mr. Keiser's paperwork, we determined that the description of the Refund Option inadvertently indicated that the Initial Death Benefit would be payable to his beneficiary if he was to pass away prior to age 65 . . . . As a result, the Plan has made the determination to pay you a monthly recurring benefit as if Mr. Keiser had elected the Qualified 50% Joint and Survivor Annuity at ...

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