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Bowen v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 16, 2019

TRINA J. BOWEN, Plaintiff
v.
NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY and BENEFITS ADMINISTRATIVE COMMITTEE, PLAN ADMINISTRATOR OF NATIONWIDE-SPONSORED HEALTH AND WELFARE EMPLOYEE BENEFITS PLAN, Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          KANE JUDGE.

         Before the Court are Defendants Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company (“Nationwide”) and Benefits Administrative Committee, Plan Administrator of Nationwide-Sponsored Health and Welfare Employee Benefits Plan (“BAC”)'s Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 9) Count II of Plaintiff Trina J. Bowen (“Plaintiff”)'s Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 2), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons provided herein, the Court will deny Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff initiated the above-captioned action by filing a complaint against Defendants in the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2018. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 1.) Nationwide removed the case to the Middle District of Pennsylvania on January 4, 2019. (Doc. No. 1.) On January 10, 2019, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, asserting a claim for benefits and related relief under Section 502 of The Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1132(a)(1)(B), 1132(a)(3) (“Count I”), and for discrimination and retaliation under Section 510 of ERISA (“Count II”) (Doc. No. 2), arising out of Nationwide's alleged wrongful termination of Plaintiff, and BAC's subsequent denial of severance benefits and ERISA rights. (Id.)

         On January 24, 2019, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the discrimination and retaliation claims under ERISA at Count II of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 9), accompanied by a brief in support of the motion to dismiss (Doc. No. 10). Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss on February 6, 2019, approximately two (2) weeks later. (Doc. No. 11.) On February 19, 2019, Defendants filed a reply brief. (Doc. No. 12.) Accordingly, the motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

         B. Factual Background [1]

         Plaintiff was hired by Nationwide on October 26, 1987, and worked for Nationwide until her termination on October 6, 2017. (Doc. No. 2 ¶ 10.) During Plaintiff's roughly thirty (30) year career with Nationwide, she consistently received positive feedback and favorable performance evaluations. (Id. ¶ 11.) On March 2, 2017, Plaintiff and her supervisor, Mr. Comparato, were working with defense counsel to settle a workers' compensation case. (Id. ¶ 12.) Mr. Comparato and Plaintiff realized that the case would require more than the $50, 000 settlement authority previously extended to defense counsel, and, without Plaintiff's involvement, Mr. Comparato authorized and approved a settlement around $75, 000. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) In response to the ultimate settlement, Plaintiff asked Mr. Comparato if the additional settlement authority he authorized had been documented, to which he stated that it had. (Id. ¶ 16.) Plaintiff alleges that on March 6, 2017-the very next day-Mr. Comparato issued a “bogus” write-up to her, which he emphasized that no one in the company knew about. (Id. ¶ 17.) Plaintiff and Mr. Comparato met on March 9 to discuss the write-up, and during this meeting, Mr. Comparato stated that Plaintiff was not keeping up with her workload. (Id. ¶ 19.) In response, Plaintiff offered to take a salary reduction and a demotion to “Loss Time I” or a Medical Only Desk, an idea rejected by Mr. Comparato.[2] (Id. ¶¶ 20-21.)

         On June 6, 2017, Plaintiff emailed Mr. Comparato for a ninety-day (90) update, and Mr. Comparato responded that same day. (Id. ¶ 22.) Plaintiff emailed Mr. Comparato the next day, June 7, 2017, for clarification about his June 6 email, their March 9 meeting, and his March 6 notice. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.) In his response email, Mr. Comparato reaffirmed that his June 6 communication to Plaintiff was only a continuation of the March notice. (Id. ¶ 24.) However, on August 1, 2017, Mr. Comparato allegedly issued a misnamed final notice that was a second unwarranted notice. (Id. ¶¶ 24-25.) The notice stated that Plaintiff had forty-five (45) days, or until September 15, 2017, to improve her performance. (Id. ¶ 26.) Further, Plaintiff was advised that the Human Resources (“HR”) Department was aware of Mr. Comparato's first unofficial notice on March 6. (Id. ¶¶ 26-27.) Plaintiff met for a consultation with Mr. Welch of the HR Department in an attempt to communicate her concerns regarding her treatment by Mr. Comparato, but Mr. Welch did not offer her any options or solutions to address her concerns. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.) Plaintiff was able to reduce her caseload, and Mr. Comparato's forty-five (45) day deadline passed without any disciplinary action or criticisms of Plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 32.)

         On October 6, 2017, Mr. Comparato, accompanied in the office by another manager and on the phone by Mr. Welch, informed Plaintiff that she had been terminated and issued her a termination letter. (Id. ¶¶ 33-34.) On May 1, 2018, Plaintiff filed a claim with the BAC under the Nationwide Severance Pay Plan (the “Plan”) seeking severance benefits of $30, 415.81. (Id. ¶ 35.) BAC denied Plaintiff's claim, and Plaintiff appealed that denial by letter dated July 2, 2018. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36.) By letter dated July 30, 2018, BAC upheld its original decision to deny severance benefits to Plaintiff based on, in part, the fact that Plaintiff's separation from employment was an “Involuntary Termination” rather than a “Job Elimination, ” the latter of which would have entitled Plaintiff to benefits. (Id. ¶ 37.)

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying severance benefits to her through their allegedly improper determination that Plaintiff's separation from employment was an “Involuntary Termination, ” rather than a “Job Elimination” occurring as part of a contemporaneous reduction in force. (Id. ¶¶ 38-41.) Plaintiff alleges that Nationwide acted in bad faith in denying severance benefits to her and, furthermore, that the severance claims process lacks fundamental fairness and due process. (Id. ¶¶ 43-44.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of the complaint's factual allegations. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted) (interpreting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)). Generally, a court considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) must determine whether the complaint contains sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Consistent with the Supreme Court's rulings in Twombly and Iqbal, the Third Circuit requires district courts to engage in a two-art analysis when reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion: (1) first, a court should separate the factual and legal elements of a claim, accepting well-pleaded factual matter and disregarding legal conclusions; (2) second, a court should determine whether the remaining well-pled facts sufficiently demonstrate that a plaintiff has a “plausible claim for relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Facial plausibility exists when the plaintiff pleads factual content ...


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