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Maltese v. National Roofing Industry Pension Plan

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

December 12, 2016

FRANCIS R. MALTESE, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONAL ROOFING INDUSTRY PENSION PLAN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          FREDERICK P. STAMP, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This civil action was brought under the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., to challenge the suspension of the plaintiff's retirement benefits. The parties have filed cros-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied and the defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted.

         I. Facts

         The plaintiff, Francis R. Maltese, Jr. (“Maltese”), is a beneficiary under the National Roofing Industry Pension Plan (“the Plan”), a multi-employer pension plan subject to ERISA, through his membership in the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers. Before his retirement, Maltese worked for Kalkreuth Roofing and Sheet Metal (“Kalkreuth”) as a roofer, a foreman, a superintendent, and a project manager. In July 2011, Maltese informed the Plan that he intended to seek early retirement benefits effective January 1, 2012 and applied for retirement benefits. Maltese then sent the Plan a letter in December 2011 stating that he intended to delay his retirement to May 1, 2012 and that he intended to continue working for Kalkreuth as an estimator beginning on that date. Maltese's application was approved and he began receiving monthly retirement payments as of May 1, 2012. On that date, Maltese began working as an estimator. Then, on January 1, 2015, Maltese became the “WV Operations Manager” at the Kaley Group, Inc. (“Kaley”), an entity related to Kalkreuth.

         The Plan made monthly payments to Maltese from May 1, 2012 through March 2015. After learning of Maltese's work with Kaley as an Operations Manager, the Plan suspended Maltese's benefits. Maltese appealed the suspension through the Plan's claims procedure. The Plan's Board of Trustees (“the Trustees”) denied Maltese's appeal, concluding that he had not actually retired on May 1, 2012, that his benefits were properly suspended, and that he must reimburse the Plan for all benefits he received since claiming retirement. Maltese then filed this civil action challenging the Trustees' decision and seeking unpaid benefits. Maltese and the Plan each filed motions for summary judgment, and the parties agree that there is no genuine dispute of material fact.

         II. Applicable Law

         “When faced with cross-motions for summary judgment, the court must review each motion separately on its own merits to determine whether either of the parties deserve judgment as a matter of law.” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, this Court must grant a party's motion for summary judgment 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). A fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Id. If the non-moving party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, ” summary judgment must be granted against that party. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In reviewing the supported underlying facts, all inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The parties agree that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Thus, the only issue is which party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         Where a plan subject to ERISA confers discretion to a fiduciary, the fiduciary's “decision will not be disturbed if reasonable, even if the court itself would have reached a differed conclusion.” Booth v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Assocs. Health & Welfare Plan, 201 F.3d 335, 341 (4th Cir. 2000). The parties agree that the Plan provides the Trustees with discretion to make determinations regarding a pensioner's benefits.[1] In determining whether a fiduciary's discretionary decision is reasonable, the Fourth Circuit has provided a non-exclusive set of factors to be considered, including:

(1) the language of the plan; (2) the purposes and goals of the plan; (3) the adequacy of the materials considered to make the decision and the degree to which they support it; (4) whether the fiduciary's interpretation was consistent with other provisions in the plan and with earlier interpretations of the plan; (5) whether the decisionmaking process was reasoned and principled; (6) whether the decision was consistent with the procedural and substantive requirements of ERISA; (7) any external standard relevant to the exercise of discretion; and (8) the fiduciary's motives and any conflict of interest it may have.

Id. at 342-43. Maltese's complaint implicates the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth factors, and the parties do not address the other factors.

         III. Discussion

         Maltese challenges the Trustees' decision as to two core issues: (1) whether Maltese “retired” under the terms of the Plan; and (2) whether Maltese's work as an Operations Manager is “work in the jurisdiction of the Plan” subject to a suspension of benefits.

         A. Early Retirement

         Under § 5.4(A) of the Plan, “retirement” is defined as “complete withdrawal from any further employment in work in the jurisdiction of the Plan. No Participant shall be considered retired for purposes of the Plan until he has been withdrawn from work in the jurisdiction of the Plan for a period of 30 days or more.” ECF No. 20-1 at 157. The Trustees found that Maltese did not “retire” under § 5.4(A) because his work as an estimator starting on May 1, 2012 constituted work in the “jurisdiction of the Plan” so that he did not cease work in the “jurisdiction of the Plan” for thirty days or more. Maltese argues that the Trustees abused their discretion by unreasonably interpreting the term “jurisdiction of the Plan” to include his work as an estimator and that the Plan should be equitably estopped from denying that he retired.

         1. “Jurisdiction of the Plan”

         Maltese argues that the term “jurisdiction of the Plan” must be interpreted as coextensive with the term “Covered Employment, ” and that “jurisdiction of the Plan” is at least ambiguous and should be construed against the Plan. The defendant argues that these terms are not synonymous and that “jurisdiction of the Plan” is unambiguous.

         Section 5.4(A) defines “jurisdiction of the Plan” as employment in:

(1) an industry in which employees covered by this Plan were employed and accrued benefits under this Plan as a result of such ...

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