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ROVIRA v. AT&T

March 24, 1993

SANDRA ROVIRA, individually and as executor of the Estate of Marjorie Forlini, FRANK MORALES and ALFRED MORALES, Plaintiffs,
v.
AT&T, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT P. PATTERSON, JR.

 ROBERT P. PATTERSON, JR., U.S.D.J.

 This is an action for declaratory relief and damages alleging violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant American Telegraph & Telephone Company ("AT&T"), in its administration of the AT&T Management Pension Plan (the "Plan"), discriminates against its employees on the basis of marital status and sexual orientation in determining beneficiary eligibility for Sickness Death Benefits under the Plan. Defendant AT&T moves for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and Plaintiffs cross move for partial summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted, and Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment is denied.

 BACKGROUND

 I. The Plaintiffs

 Marjorie Forlini, an AT&T employee, died of cancer in 1988. Plaintiff Sandra Rovira was her gay life partner, and plaintiffs Frank and Alfred Morales (the "Moraleses") are Rovira's biological adult children from a prior marriage who lived with Rovira and Forlini for ten of the twelve years the two women lived together.

 In 1976, Forlini and Rovira entered into what proved to be a long and committed relationship. The couple formalized their relationship on March 7, 1977, in a ceremony "during which they exchanged rings and vows. Though as a lesbian couple [residing in New York] they were not entitled to marry, Sandra [Rovira] and Marjorie [Forlini] utilized the same symbolic ceremony usually associated with marriage to commit themselves to each other for the rest of their lives." Lee Bantle Letter to AT&T Employees' Benefit Committee 1 (April 26, 1989), Rizzi Aff., Exh. 7. On March 7, 1987, Rovira and Forlini signed an unofficial certificate attesting to their commitment and relationship. Id.

 In 1978, the Moraleses, then aged 11 and 8, came to live with Rovira and Forlini. Although Rovira was the biological mother of the Moraleses, their tuition, medical bills, food, clothing, housing, entertainment and other expenses were paid from the joint financial resources of Forlini and Rovira. Pl.'s 3(g) Statement P 29. From 1979 to 1984, Forlini claimed one or both of the Moraleses as "dependents" on her tax returns and described them therein as her "godchild[ren]." Rovira Aff., Exh. C. Indeed, throughout their relationship, Rovira and Forlini "pooled their [financial] resources, shared responsibility for making the important decisions affecting their lives, jointly owned their home, . . . [and] took vacations together." Bantle Letter, supra, at 2, Rizzi Aff., Exh. 7.

 In 1988, Rovira was named the beneficiary of Forlini's life insurance policy, which was provided to Forlini as a benefit of her employment with AT&T. Pl.'s 3(g) Statement P 25; Rizzi Aff., Exh. 11, at 37. Forlini listed Rovira as her "friend" under the relationship column of the life insurance designation form. Rizzi Aff., Exh. 11. In Forlini's Last Will and Testament, Rovira was named the residuary legatee and executor of Forlini's estate. As the residuary legatee of Forlini's estate, Rovira received between $ 20,000 and $ 30,000 in cash and Forlini's car. Rovira Dep. at 245-48, Rizzi Reply Aff., Exh. K. Forlini's will did not, however, refer to Rovira as her spouse, and did not mention the Moraleses. Rizzi Aff., Exh. 8. Pursuant to a right of survivorship, Rovira also received Forlini's share of the house they co-owned and which was worth $ 300,000. Rovira Dep. at 245-48, Rizzi Reply Aff., Exh. K. *fn1"

 II. The Employee Benefits Plan

 As an AT&T sales manager, Forlini was covered under the Plan, an employee benefit plan governed by ERISA that provides for payment of a Sickness Death Benefit to the eligible beneficiaries of deceased employees who participated in the Plan. The Plan limits eligible beneficiaries for Sickness Death Benefits to three categories of persons: "the spouse and the dependent children and other dependent relatives of the deceased." Management Pension Plan at 99 (§ 4), Rizzi Aff., Exh. 3.

 The Plan further creates two categories of beneficiaries: mandatory and discretionary. With respect to the mandatory beneficiary category, the Plan states that "the maximum benefit shall be paid to" the spouse, dependent children, or a dependent parent living with or in a household in the vicinity that is provided by the employee. Id. at 100 (§ 5(4)(a)). With regard to the discretionary beneficiary category, the Plan states that "a Sickness Death Benefit . . . may be paid to" other dependent relatives, and it grants AT&T's Employees' Benefit Committee, the "final review committee" on all decisions involving benefit claims, "full authority to determine to whom payments shall be paid and the amount of the payments, taking into consideration the degree of dependency and such other facts as it may deem pertinent." Id. at 101 (§ 5(4)(b)).

 Under section 3(2)(e)(i) of the Plan, the Employees' Benefit Committee "shall grant or deny claims for benefits under the Plan with respect to employees of each Participating Company, respectively, and authorize disbursements according to this Plan." Id. at 21. The Employees' Benefit Committee are trustees of the Plan pursuant to the provisions of ERISA. 29 U.S.C. § 1103(a).

 The relevant provisions of the Plan are as follows: Section 5(4), entitled "Eligible Beneficiaries," provides:

 
The persons who may be beneficiaries of the . . . Sickness Death Benefit . . . are limited to the spouse and the dependent children and other dependent relatives of the deceased.

 Section 5(4)(a), entitled "Mandatory Beneficiaries," provides:

 
In the event of death by sickness, the maximum Sickness Death Benefit . . . shall be paid . . . [1] to the spouse of the deceased employee if living with him at the time of his death, or [2] the unmarried child or children of the deceased employee under the age of 23 years . . . who were actually supported in whole or in part by the deceased employee at the time of death, or [3] a dependent parent who lives in the same household with the employee or who lives in a separate household in the vicinity which is provided for the parent by the employee.

 Section 5(4)(b), entitled "Discretionary Beneficiaries," provides:

 
If there be no beneficiary of the deceased employee as described in Subparagraph [(4)](a) . . ., a Sickness Death Benefit . . . may be paid to . . . any other person or persons who may be beneficiaries, as defined in the first sentence of this Paragraph 4 [i.e., spouse, dependent children and other dependent relatives of the deceased employee], and be receiving or entitled to receive support from the deceased employee at the time of his death.

 Section 5(4)(b) also provides that "the [Employees' Benefit] committee . . . shall have full authority to determine to whom payments shall be made and the amount of the payments, taking into consideration the degree of dependency and such other facts as it may deem pertinent." Id. at 99-101.

 Pursuant to its legal obligations under ERISA, see 29 U.S.C. §§ 1021, 1022 & 1024, AT&T created and gave its salaried employees, including Forlini, a Summary Plan Description ("SPD") that summarizes the provisions of the Plan. The eligible beneficiary categories listed in the SPD mirror the beneficiary categories contained in the Plan:

 
Mandatory beneficiaries are your:
 
- legal spouse, if living with you at the time of your death
 
- unmarried dependent children up to age 23 (age 23 or over if disabled and ...

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