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Vendura v. Boxer

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 11, 2017

GEORGE J. VENDURA, JR., Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
JONATHAN BOXER; NORTHROP GRUMMAN CORPORATION; NORTHROP GRUMMAN SPACE & MISSION SYSTEMS CORP. SALARIED PENSION PLAN; KEN BEDINGFIELD; MICHAEL HARDESTY; NORTHROP GRUMMAN SPACE & MISSION SYSTEMS CORP. SALARIED PENSION PLAN ADMINISTRATIVE COMMITTEE; NORTHROP GRUMMAN AEROSPACE SECTOR; TIFFANY MCCONNELL; NORTHROP GRUMMAN SPACE & MISSION SYSTEMS CORP.; DENISE PEPPARD, Defendants, Appellees.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. William G. Young, U.S. District Judge]

          Stephen D. Rosenberg, with whom Caroline Fiore and The Wagner Law Group were on brief, for appellant.

          Brian D. Netter, with whom Nancy G. Ross and Mayer Brown LLP were on brief, for appellees.

          Before Torruella, Lipez, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          BARRON, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal involves a suit for pension benefits that George Vendura brings against Northrop Grumman Corp. ("Northrop") and a number of related entities and individuals.[1] The key point of contention concerns the number of "years of benefit service" that should be credited to Vendura in calculating his pension benefits under his pension plan. We affirm the judgment below, which grants summary judgment to defendants.

         I.

         Vendura was hired by TRW Inc. ("TRW") in 1993 and became a participant in the TRW Salaried Pension Plan ("TRW Plan"). After Vendura worked for TRW for seven years, he went on medical leave in June of 2000, in consequence of work-related injuries that he had suffered much earlier. During this leave, Vendura received Social Security and long-term disability benefits. Vendura also applied for and, he contends, received workers' compensation benefits during this time.

         In 2002, Northrop acquired TRW and renamed the company Northrup Grumman Space and Mission Systems Corp. ("NGSMSC"). Soon thereafter, NGSMSC attempted to terminate Vendura's employment. Vendura, however, challenged the attempt to lay him off, and, in 2003, Vendura and NGSMSC signed a settlement agreement that kept Vendura on board at NGSMSC.

         The settlement agreement provided that Vendura would remain an "employee" of NGSMSC and "receive all benefits and rights to which he is entitled pursuant to all benefit plans for which he is eligible." The settlement agreement further provided that Vendura would cease to be a NGSMSC employee only when one of several specific conditions came to pass. One of those conditions was that "Vendura's LTD [long-term disability] status ends."

         Because this case concerns a dispute over pension benefits rather than employment, however, the settlement agreement matters only insofar as it relates to Vendura's pension plan. And, the relevant pension plan is the NGSMSC Salaried Pension Plan ("NGSMSC Plan"), which, for former TRW employees like Vendura, incorporated the eligibility criteria set forth in the TRW Plan.

         The TRW Plan provides that pension benefits for participants, like Vendura, are to be calculated on the basis of the participant's "Years of Benefit Service." Section 2.2 of the TRW Plan, in subsection (a), makes clear that such years include ones in which a participant receives compensation "for the performance of services." But, in the subsequent subsections of Section 2.2, the TRW Plan allows participants to accrue years of benefit service even for periods of time in which the participant is absent from work, so long as that absence is for a reason that is specified in one of those follow-on subsections in Section 2.2.

         Only two of the follow-on subsections are relevant here: subsections (b) and (c). Until 1999, these two subsections read as follows:

(b) absence without pay from work because of injury or occupational disease received in the course of his employment with the Controlled Group and for which he receives Workers' Compensation disability benefits; provided, however, that service credit shall be limited to a maximum of twelve months unless the Participant has met the eligibility requirements for receiving long term disability benefits (whether or not he actually receives such benefits);
(c) absence without pay from work due to a disability and for which he is entitled to receive long-term disability benefits under any plan maintained by a member of the Controlled Group[.]

         Effective January 1, 1999, however, the TRW Plan was amended by, among other things, changing subsection (c). Post-amendment, subsection (c) reads as follows:

(c) absence without pay from work due to a disability and for which he is entitled to receive long-term disability benefits under any plan maintained by a member of the Controlled Group, provided, however, with respect to an absence from work beginning on or after January 1, 2000 as a result of disability, (i) no more than sixty months of Benefit Service will be credited under this Section 2.2(c) for a Participant with five or more years of Vesting Service and (ii) no more than twelve months of Benefit Service will be credited under this Section 2.2(c) for a Participant with less than five years of Vesting Service at the time such absence from work commences.

(emphasis added to highlight the newly added language).

         The proper interpretation of these subsections became a subject of controversy after Vendura's long-term disability insurer informed Vendura -- in October of 2012 -- that his eligibility for long-term disability benefits would expire in February of 2013. Vendura did not dispute that his long-term disability benefits would expire at that time, or that, per the settlement agreement, his employment with NGSMSC would thus come to an end. For that reason, Vendura ...


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