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CHAMBLESS v. MASTERS

August 3, 1984

ARTHUR CHAMBLESS and MILDRED H. CHAMBLESS, Plaintiffs, against MASTERS, MATES & PILOTS PENSION PLAN, et al., Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: CARTER

CARTER, District Judge

Background Facts

 Plaintiff, Albert Chambless, became a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots ("MM&P") in 1944 after being issued a third mate's license. He is a resident of Alabama and received all of his MM&P work assignments through the union hiring hall in Mobile, Alabama. He obtained his master's license in 1956, when he was given command of the Frontenac Victory. This assignment lasted until May, 1968. Thereafter, Chambless regularly hired out as master or chief mate through 1975.

 The MM&P pension plan ("plan") was established in 1955. It is an employer-funded pension and trust fund that provides retirement benefits for MM&P licensed deck officers. The plan is administered by an equal number of employee and employer designated trustees who have broad powers to formulate regulations for the administration of the plan. The trustees have delegated the day to day operation of the plan to an administrator. Stephen Maher, now Executive Director of the plan, functioned as administrator from 1965-1981. The administrator decides initially whether an applicant satisfies the plan's eligibility requirements and determines the appropriate pension benefit the applicant is entitled to receive. His decisions are presented to the trustees for approval. The administrator's determination that an applicant is not entitled to benefits does not reach the trustees unless the applicant appeals, in which case the trustees then determine whether to uphold or reject the administrator's determination.

 The trustees have formulated a large body of regulations governing the plan's operations. Prior to the enactment of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. ┬ž 1001 et seq., the plan's regulations provided for normal retirement without regard to age, after 20 years of pension service credits. Pursuant to the terms of the 1966 collective bargaining agreement, the plan was amended to provide for wage related pension benefits based on the average salary for the five highest salary years in the last ten years prior to the effective date of retirement.

 Prior to August, 1976, retirement was defined in Article II, Section 13a of the plan regulations as complete withdrawal from "further employment in any capacity in the maritime industry", except that the trustees "in their sole discretion could permit [a retiree to work] in shoreside positions covered by a collective bargaining agreement by the [union], and upon application submitted through the [union], [to work] as a marine surveyor or employment aboard fishing vessels, yachts and other small craft (such as supply boats) provided employment [is] in a capacity, not covered by the collective bargaining agreements of the [union]."

 Article II, Section 13(b) provided that if a retiree worked in employment forbidden by Section 13a, he forfeited his pension benefits for the month he worked and for six additional months. He had to return all benefits received and if he failed or refused to do so, all future benefits could be denied. The retiree had to notify the trustees in writing within 15 days of the commencement of forbidden employment, and the trustees were empowered to disqualify him permanently from receiving any future pension benefits if he failed to do so.

 In December, 1975 the plan adopted Amendment 42 which added a new Section 13 to Article I. Normal retirement age was defined as "age 65, or, if later, the age of the participant on the tenth anniversary of his participation. All references to "Normal Pension" [were] changed to read "Regular Pension".

 In 1976, Walter Anderson, who was in charge of the hiring hall in Mobile, Alabama, sought to induce Chambless to retire in accord with then current union policy. Anderson advised Chambless that the union wanted all the older licensed deck officers to retire and that if Chambless did not retire, he could expect to be shipped out on second or third mate assignments. During 1976 and 1977 all of Chambless' assignments through the Mobile, Alabama hiring hall were in second or third mate jobs. In a letter dated March 17, 1979, sent to all offshore ports, Robert Lowen, Union President, discussed the union's effort to secure non-wage related benefits and other incentives to induce older deck officers to retire.

 Chambless apparently succumbed to the pressure and filed an application for retirement benefits on November 12, 1976, but then, having second thoughts, withdrew the application. On April 2, 1977, he filed a second application.At that time he was advised that his retirement benefits would be approximately $920 per month. This calculation was presumably based on his 33 1/4 years of pension service credits as of April 2, 1977, and his average salary for his five highest salary years betwen 1967 and 1977, which appear to be 1970-1975 when he sailed two times as master (6/10/73-9/30/74 Hess Petrol; 7/1/74-11/24/75 Greenport) and five times as chief mate (1/1/70-2/11/70, Spirit of Liberty; 5/25/70-1/1/71, Golden Gate; 8/6/71-3/31/73, Hess Voyager; 4/9/73-6/9/73, Hess Petrol; 2/14/75-4/10/75, Hess Refiner).

 Prior to filing his application, Chambless had accepted employment as a master (3/18/77-4/1/77) on the Mission Viking, a vessel owned by a company not a party to a collective bargaining agreement with MM&P. He testified that before accepting this assignment, he had spoken to the dispatcher at the union hiring hall in Mobile, Alabama and was advised that there would be no problem. Two days after the filing of his April 2, 1977 application, he accepted assignment as master on the Mount Explorer, another non-MM&P contract vessel. That assignment did not end until September 13, 1977. The Mission Viking was an oil drilling rig. The Mount Explorer was a U.S. flag ocean going vessel.

 On August 24, 1976, the trustees adopted amendments 46 and 47 as new plan regulations. These amendments were proposed by union designated trustees and drafted by union counsel who advised the trustees that the two proposals were not at odds with any ERISA provision. Amendment 46 provides that retirees working in forbidden employment are not entitled to any pension benefits during such employment and for six months thereafter, provided the six month penalty does not extend beyond the retiree's normal retirement age. Moreover, if a retiree works as a licensed deck officer on a U.S. flag ocean going vessel owned by a company not participating in the MM&P plan, the retiree forefeits his pension benefits until normal retirement. Amendment 47 provides that an active member (i.e. one not yet retired) who, subsequent to acquiring 10 years of vesting service, works as a licensed deck officer on a United States flag ocean going vessel for a company not under contract with MM&P, shall not be entitled to any pension benefits until normal retirement age.

 The two new amendments were discussed in articles by Robert Lowen, then MM&P Secretary Treasurer and Stephen Maher, plan administrator, published in the October 1977 issue of the MM&P newspaper, The Pilot. Lowen's article called attention to the regulations' ban on prohibited employment. Maher's article highlighted the same theme in a short explanation of the amendments' meaning, and his article carried the full text of the two provisions. In a later article published in the December, 1976 issue of the newspaper, Maher again focused on the two regulations and discussed their importance.

 Copies of the newspaper, distributed at union hiring halls in various ports from which the union operates, are not mailed to union members or pension participants. Booklets concerning the pension plan and explaining the regulations are sent to plan participants but the text of neither the regulations or amendments are sent directly to union members. The first communication directly to the plan ...


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