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Sullivan v. Coventry Municipal Employees' Retirement Plan

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

March 22, 2019

Richard P. Sullivan
v.
Coventry Municipal Employees' Retirement Plan et al.

          Kent County Superior Court, KC 12-1126, Bennett R. Gallo Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Robert D. Goldberg, Esq.

          For Defendants: Vincent F. Ragosta, Jr., Esq., Nicholas Gorham, Esq., D. Peter DeSimone, Esq., Marc DiSisto, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Gilbert V. Indeglia, Associate Justice

         The plaintiff, Richard P. Sullivan (plaintiff), appeals from a final judgment in favor of the defendants following a Kent County Superior Court hearing justice's grant of the defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and the hearing justice's alternative grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. On appeal, the plaintiff argues that the hearing justice erred in determining that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over his claim, and he further contends that the hearing justice erred in alternatively granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court regarding its lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Furthermore, we reinstate and grant the plaintiff's previously-denied petition for writ of certiorari (No. 2015-58-M.P.), consolidate that matter with the present appeal (No. 2016-73-Appeal.), and affirm the decision of the plan administrator denying the plaintiff pension benefits.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         This matter arises from a dispute regarding plaintiff's request for and defendants' subsequent denial of pension benefits. The relevant facts are as follows. From February 1986 through December 2008, plaintiff held a variety of part-time positions with the Town of Coventry (the town), including probate judge, assistant solicitor, town moderator, and town manager. Over that time, three different plans governing the town employees' rights to pension benefits were in effect: (1) the 1977 Annuity Plan; (2) the 1997 Plan restatement; and (3) the 2008 Plan restatement (collectively, the plan). In June 2011, after his employment with the town had ended, plaintiff submitted a request for a pension from the town. After the plan administrator-an entity comprised of members of the Coventry Town Council (the plan administrator)-apparently delayed in responding to plaintiff's pension request, plaintiff, on October 4, 2012, filed a complaint for breach of contract as well as seeking a declaratory judgment against the defendant, Coventry Municipal Employees' Retirement Plan, in Kent County Superior Court. The plaintiff filed an amended complaint five days later that added the town's finance director as a defendant. On February 26, 2013, plaintiff filed his second amended complaint, naming as additional defendants individuals in their capacities as members of the town council sitting as the plan administrator, along with the original defendants (collectively, defendants).[1] The plaintiff's second amended complaint alleged one count for breach of contract, for which he sought specific performance and damages, and one count seeking a declaration of the parties' rights, status, and obligations under the plan.

         In December 2013, defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff's second amended complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. At a hearing on the motion, the hearing justice opined that review of a quasi-judicial hearing and action by a town council is properly made by way of a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, but she explained that "it is unclear from the record whether or not the plaintiff was given a hearing with respect to the application for benefits." Accordingly, the hearing justice determined that plaintiff was entitled to due process before his pension claim could be addressed in court, and she denied defendants' motion to dismiss.[2]

         The defendants moved for summary judgment on November 6, 2014. The next month, the hearing justice reserved decision on that motion and remanded the case to the town council for a hearing on plaintiff's pension application. The hearing justice further ordered that "[t]he matter must be heard and decided by the Town Council within sixty (60) days, up to and including February 6, 2015[, ]" noting that the "case remains pending in the Superior Court and this Superior Court retains jurisdiction[.]" The hearing justice also scheduled a status conference for February 26, 2015. On January 15, 2015, the plan administrator conducted a hearing during which it heard testimony and received evidence pertaining to plaintiff's request for a pension under the plan. On January 31, 2015, after considering the documentary evidence and testimony and interpreting the terms of the plan, the plan administrator voted unanimously "to deny Mr. Sullivan's request for pension benefits and directed the Town solicitor to draft a written decision in support of its denial."

         Thereafter, plaintiff petitioned this Court to issue a common law writ of certiorari to review the plan administrator's decision to deny his request for pension benefits. We denied plaintiff's petition "without prejudice, however, to the petitioner's right to prosecute his Superior Court action against the respondents * * * to a conclusion."[3] After the parties returned to Superior Court for reconsideration of plaintiff's original prayers, defendants filed a motion: (1) to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction; (2) for summary judgment as to all counts of plaintiff's complaint; or (3) to affirm the plan administrator's decision on the administrative record and without trial.

         In a written decision, the hearing justice determined that the Superior Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims, reasoning that the proper recourse rests in this Court. The hearing justice went on, however, to decide that, even if the Superior Court had subject-matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims, the municipal defendants were entitled to summary judgment because the plan administrator's decision was not arbitrary and capricious. Judgment entered on February 10, 2016, dismissing the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Additionally, the judgment provides that, "[a]ssuming that the Superior Court had subject-matter jurisdiction, because plaintiff failed to establish any genuine issues of material fact relating to the validity of the decision of the Town Council, defendants are awarded judgment as a matter of law as to plaintiff's second amended complaint." The plaintiff timely appealed to this Court.[4]

         On appeal, plaintiff contends that the hearing justice erred in granting defendants' motion to dismiss because G.L. 1956 § 8-2-13 confers jurisdiction on the Superior Court over his claims for breach of contract and specific performance, and G.L. 1956 §§ 9-30-1 and 9-30-2 confer jurisdiction upon the court over the declaratory-judgment claim. The plaintiff cites to our decision in Retirement Board of Employees' Retirement System of City of Providence v. Corrente, 111 A.3d 301 (R.I. 2015), to support his position. Moreover, plaintiff argues that the hearing justice erred in alternatively granting defendants' motion for summary judgment; according to plaintiff, the hearing justice employed an improper standard of review.

         To the contrary, defendants take the position that the hearing justice properly determined that the Superior Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over this matter because the plan administrator operates in a quasi-judicial capacity in deciding matters involving pension-benefit eligibility. Therefore, defendants argue, the proper avenue of review of those decisions is through a writ of certiorari to this Court. Moreover, defendants contend that, even if the Superior Court did have subject-matter jurisdiction to review the plan administrator's decision denying pension benefits, that decision was not arbitrary and capricious, and as such the hearing justice did not err in alternatively granting summary judgment in favor of defendants.

         II

         Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         A

         Standard of Review

         "We have previously held that 'a challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction questions the very power of the court to hear the case.'" Corrente, 111 A.3d at 305 (brackets omitted) (quoting In re New England Gas Co., 842 A.2d 545, 553 (R.I. 2004)). "Subject-matter jurisdiction 'may not be waived by any party and may be raised at any time in the proceedings.'" Id. (quoting In re New England Gas Co., 842 A.2d at 553). "We review 'de novo whether a court has subject-matter ...


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