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Lewis v. Sheet M Workers' National Pension Fund

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

February 7, 2019

FRANK LEWIS, Plaintiff,


          John J. McConnell Jr. United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Frank Lewis filed, this action to challenge an Appeals Committee determination (ECF No. 12-2 at 138-142) approving his application for early retirement benefits by the Sheet Metal Workers' National Pension Fund ("Plan")[1] but subjecting it to delays per the Plan documents. The Plan responded to the Complaint by moving to dismiss. ECF No. 12. Facts

         Mr. Lewis was a member of the Sheet Metal Workers' Union, Local 17 ("Union") for many years.[2] ECF No. 1 at 2, ¶3, 7. From about 2008 until 2011, Mr. Lewis was an unemployed member of the Union. Id. at 3, ¶13. He then became "employed by General Dynamics Electric Boat ["Electric Boat"] from February 14, 2011 to October 4, 2015." ECF No. 1 at 2, ¶11. His position with Electric Boat was in the sheet metal industry but not under a Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") with the Sheet Metal Workers' Union ("Union") ("noncovered employment'). Id. at 2, ¶¶ 11. The job was provided by a "Veterans' Administration program entitled Helmet to Hard Hats." This program "awardts] to Iraqi[ ] Freedom Veterans" help with work placement in the building industry. Id. After his employment with Electric Boat, Mr. Lewis retired.

         Mr. Lewis, a participant in the Plan, submitted a claim for pension benefits that included a claim for early retirement benefits. ECF No. 1 at 2, ¶¶8, 9. The Plan approved his claim for pension benefits bxit postponed his request for early retirement benefits because of his period of noncovered employment. Id. at 2, ¶10.

         Standard of Review

         The Court assumes the factual allegations in the Complaint as true for purposes of this motion. Arruda v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 310 F.3d 13, 18 (1st Cir. 2002). The complaining party must include "factual content [if it wants] the court to draw a reasonable inference" in the pleader's favor. Katz v. Pershing, LLC, 672 F.3d 64, 72-73 (1st Cir. 2012).

         If an ERISA Plan delegates to the Plan administrator the discretion to construe the Plan and determine eligibility for benefits under its provisions-as it does here-a Court must uphold a decision made under the Plan unless it was "arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion." Niebauer v. Crane & Co., 783 F.3d 914, 922-23 (1st Cir. 2015). The central question under the arbitrary and capricious standard is whether the decision was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., McDonough v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 783 F.3d 374, 379 (1st Cir. 2015). "[T]he question is not which side is right," but whether the Appeals Committee's "decision was reasonable based on the record before it." Niebauer, 783 F.3d at 928.

         The Court may consider the contents of documents alleged in a complaint for purposes of a motion to dismiss without converting the motion to one for summary judgment when the documents are central to a plaintiffs claims and a plaintiff sufficiently refers to them in the complaint. See Watterson v. Page, 987 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1993) (recognizing the propriety of considering materials outside the complaint, "for documents central to the plaintiffs' claim" and "for documents sufficiently referred to in the complaint").


         The Plan may impose a delay on the start date for early retirement of a Plan participant in some cases. See Section 5.06(b) of the Plan.[3] One of those instances occurs if the Plan participant had worked in noncovered employment. The Plan contended that Mr. Lewis' period of noncovered employment-his time working at Electric Boat[4] required them to delay his early retirement.

         Mr. Lewis first alleges that, although his employment with Electric Boat was not under a CBA, his employment was a "Federal benefit" to a veteran, which "is an exception and/or should be an exception to the standard exclusionary language contained in the plan document." ECF No. 1 at 3, ¶17. Mr. Lewis alleges that he "is entitled to early retirement benefits and that said benefits should not be postponed." Id. at 3, ¶20. Referring to the disposition of his appeal by the Appeals Committee, [Mr. Lewis] alleges that the Plan "wrongfully denied [Mr. Lewis] benefits and wrongfully postponed Mr. Lewis' receipt of pension benefits." Id. at 4, ¶21.

         The problem with Mr. Lewis's first argument is that he cites no sxich exception in the Plan documents-because none exist. Mr. Lewis' argument boils down to a theory that the Plan should have recognized such an exception to the requirement of a delay period imposed on his early retirement benefits because this noncovered employment was sponsored for veterans.[5] Although a laudable program, neither the Plan documents nor the ERISA law allows the Plan to disregard the explicit provisions of the Plan because the participant is a veteran and his employment "is a Federal benefit." Id. at 3, ¶17. The Plan thus cannot recognize the exception requested by Mr. Lewis, and neither can this Court.

         In his Complaint in this Court, Mr. Lewis offers a second rationale for why the Plan and now the Court should not delay his retirement. Before his employment with Electric Boat, Mr. Lewis was a member of the Union but remained unemployed for a period of three years. During this three-year period, the Union did not find employment for Mr. Lewis under a Union's CBA. The Union provided other Union members with employment with companies under the Union's CBA and Mr. Lewis was qualified for employment, but the Union did not provide it to him. Mr. Lewis argues that the Plan wrongfully denied him his early retirement benefits by ignoring the fact that the Union did not provide covered employment that would have entitled him to non-delayed early retirement benefits.

         The problem with Mr. Lewis' newest rationale is that the Union's alleged failure to find him employment is not a basis for not following the unambiguous language of the Plan documents. Mr. Lewis' complaint-that from 2008 to 2011, the Union did not find him employment, needing him to take the veterans-sponsored nonunion job at Electric Boat-is directed at the Union and has no relevance according to the Plan documents. ...

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