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MIELE v. PENSION PLAN OF NEW YORK STATE TEAMSTERS

August 25, 1999

ANTHONY MIELE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PENSION PLAN OF NEW YORK STATE TEAMSTERS CONFERENCE PENSION & RETIREMENT FUND AND BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF PENSION PLAN OF NEW YORK STATE TEAMSTERS CONFERENCE PENSION & RETIREMENT FUND, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ross, District Judge.

    AMENDED OPINION AND ORDER

On January 29, 1997, the plaintiff Anthony Miele filed the instant action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"). The defendants filed an answer and counterclaim on March 13, 1997. Pending before the court are motions for summary judgment from both parties. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants the defendants' motion for summary judgment in part and defers decision on the remainder of the motions pending a hearing regarding the timeliness of plaintiff's remaining claims.

I Factual and Procedural Background

Except where noted, the following facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff Anthony Miele worked for Rheingold Brewery ("Rheingold") from 1952 until February 4, 1974, when he ceased working and began to receive Workers' Compensation benefits. According to plaintiff, he remained a Rheingold employee until June 18, 1976, when he was laid off with 26 weeks of severance pay. See Compl., ¶ 14. However, according to defendants, plaintiff's effective date of retirement was September 5, 1975. See DaBella Affid., ¶ 16. During his employment with Rheingold, the plaintiff was a participant in the Brewery Workers Pension Fund ("Brewery Fund"), a multiemployer pension plan entered into by the Brewery Workers Local 46 ("Local 46") and brewery employers in the New York area. In 1978, plaintiff was awarded a Brewery Fund disability award pension of $155.93 per month.*fn1

The defendant New York State Teamsters Conference Pension and Retirement Fund ("Teamsters Fund") operates pursuant to an Agreement and Declaration of Trust ("Trust Agreement") entered into by participating employers and union locals affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL — CIO ("Teamsters") and is a multiemployer employee benefit plan under 29 U.S.C. § 1002(3) and 1037(a). Defendant Teamsters Fund is managed by defendant Board of Trustees ("Board"), comprised of four employer representatives and four union representatives. The trustees are fiduciaries of the Teamsters Fund under 29 U.S.C. § 1002(21).

On August 7, 1973, defendant Teamsters Fund and the Brewery Fund finalized an Agreement and Plan of Integration ("Merger Agreement") to merge the Brewery Fund into the Teamsters Fund. Pursuant to the Merger Agreement, members of the Brewery Fund became members of the Teamsters Fund, and the Teamsters Fund assumed the legal obligations of the Brewery Fund. See DeBella Affid., Exh. F at 2. The Merger Agreement generally allowed Brewery Fund members to elect to receive benefits under either the Teamsters Fund's plan or under the Brewery Fund's plan. See id. at 3. However, the Merger Agreement expressly provided that Brewery Fund members "for whom no contributions are made to the Teamsters Fund after the effective date of this Agreement" remained eligible only for Brewery Fund benefits. Id. at 6. For those Brewery Fund members who chose Teamsters Fund benefits, the Merger Agreement provided a formula for calculating pension benefits. See id. at 3. The merger was approved by the IRS on September 28, 1976, and December 1, 1976 was designated the effective date of the merger.

On June 14, 1979, plaintiff attempted to exercise his option under the Merger Agreement to have his benefits calculated under the Teamsters Fund rather than the Brewery Fund. See DeBella Affid., Exh. H. On November 16, 1979, the Teamsters Fund refused to award plaintiff benefits under the Teamsters Fund on the grounds that no contributions were made on his behalf after December 1, 1976, the effective date of the merger. See DeBella Affid. Exh. I. Plaintiff submitted a second request for benefits under the Teamsters Fund on December 12, 1979, but the request was rejected by letter dated December 18, 1979. See DeBella Affid., Exhs. I1 & I2.

On June 2, 1980, an action entitled Brewery Delivery Employees Local Union 46 v. Mosley, 80-CV-1476 (Glasser, J.), was filed in this court against the Teamsters Fund by Local 46 concerning the Merger Agreement. Approximately ten years later, in a settlement agreement dated August 30, 1990, all parties released all claims related to the action. See DeBella Affid., Exh. V. A Stipulation and Order dismissing the case with prejudice was entered the next day.

On January 8, 1981, the plaintiff commenced an action in the Eastern District of New York against the Teamsters Fund and the Board entitled Miele v. New York State Teamsters Conference Pension & Retirement Fund, 81-CV-0084 (Wexler, J.) (hereinafter "Miele I"). In that action, the plaintiff sought, amongst other relief, a judicial determination that he was eligible for benefits under the Teamsters Fund. On January 23, 1985, the parties to Miele I entered into an Agreement of Settlement ("Settlement Agreement"). In return for dismissal of the plaintiff's claims with prejudice, the Teamsters Fund agreed to "determine as expeditiously as reasonably possible [the plaintiff's] eligibility to pension benefits, and the amounts of such pension benefits to which [he] may be so entitled, in accordance with the pension plan of the [Teamsters] Fund, rather than in accordance with the pension plan of the Brewery Fund." See DeBella Affid., Exh. N at 6. The parties did not make "any admissions or concessions . . . with respect to the disputed issues that exist between themselves. . . ." Id. at 5. The Settlement Agreement also included a confidentiality provision and was filed with the court under seal. See Def. Local Rule 56.1 State. of Undisp. Facts, ¶ 29. Based on the Settlement Agreement, the parties executed a Stipulation and Order of Dismissal which was entered by Judge Wexler on January 23, 1985.

On March 13, 1985, acting pursuant to the Miele I Settlement Agreement, the Teamsters Fund calculated the plaintiff's pension as amounting to $171.22 per month, a $14.29 increase over his pension under the Brewery Fund. The Teamsters Fund also forwarded the plaintiff a $1,758.93 check representing a lump sum payment for retroactive benefits. After plaintiff's counsel contacted the Teamsters Fund for clarification, the Fund responded with a letter dated February 4, 1986 detailing the calculation formula employed. See Pauk Affirm., Exhs. G3-G4. Plaintiff's counsel responded with a letter dated February 10, 1986, in which he questioned the defendants' calculations particularly with regard to defendants' alleged disregard of contributions "made on his behalf up to and including June 18, 1976." Id. at Exh. G5. After reexamining the plaintiff's file, see id. at Exhs. G7-G8, the defendants did not find any further benefits to be due. See id. at Exhs. G8, G13, G15, & G17. In response to further correspondence, Peter P. Paravati, then counsel to defendant Teamsters Fund, informed plaintiff's counsel that the formula for calculating the plaintiff's pension came "not from the Teamsters' Plan, but from the merger agreement." Id. at Exh. G21; see also id. at Exh. G22.

On October 17, 1988, plaintiff's counsel again requested clarification regarding the defendants' refusal to consider contributions to the Brewery Fund allegedly made on plaintiff's behalf during 1974, 1975, and 1976. See id. at Exh. G23. In response, defendants' then-counsel Paravati informed plaintiff's counsel by letter dated October 25, 1988 that the Fund's approach to such contributions depended upon the terms of the applicable collective bargaining agreements ("CBAs"). See id. at Exh. G24. According to Paravati, "the Brewery [CBAs] did not provide for contributions during those particularly (sic) instances." Id. According to plaintiff's counsel, he subsequently made "extended, but unsuccessful efforts to obtain the relevant [CBAs] from various sources, including the [Teamsters] Plan itself." Compl., ¶ 35. Unable to locate the CBAs and relying upon Paravati's characterization of them, the plaintiff declined to pursue his case further.

In August 1994, plaintiff's counsel came upon copies of the Brewery CBAs, which appear to require employer contributions for employees who suffered industrial injuries or illness and who received workers' compensation benefits.*fn2 See Pauk Affirm., Exhs. H1-H2. After some subsequent correspondence between the parties, the plaintiff filed the instant action on January 29, 1997.

After the defendants answered the plaintiff's complaint and counterclaimed for sanctions, costs, and attorney's fees for bringing a frivolous lawsuit, see Answer & Counterclaim, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on August 18, 1998. In his motion, plaintiff not only moved for summary judgment on the claims in his complaint, but also appended what amounts to an additional claim, alleging that, under the Miele I Settlement Agreement, the plaintiff's pension should have been calculated pursuant to the Teamsters Fund plan, rather than pursuant to the Merger Agreement. See Pl. Memo. of Law, 8-10; Pl. Reply Memo., 1-9. The defendants opposed plaintiff's motion and filed their own motion for summary judgment, arguing that the court has no subject matter jurisdiction, that the plaintiff's claims are barred by res judicata, collateral estoppel, and waiver, and that the plaintiff's claims are time-barred, in addition to arguing the case's merits. See Def.Memo. of Law. Moreover, defendants' counsel not only moved for sanctions against plaintiff's counsel for filing a frivolous lawsuit, but also added a request for an order of contempt against plaintiff's counsel for disclosing the terms of the confidential Miele I settlement agreement in plaintiff's initial pleadings in this court. See id. at 60-63.

After reviewing the parties' submissions, the court ordered supplemental briefs addressing the viability of plaintiff's fiduciary duty claim under Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 116 S.Ct. 1065, 134 L.Ed.2d 130 (1996), and its progeny. See Order, 4/8/99. In his supplemental brief, plaintiff clarified his three claims for relief. Plaintiff's first claim constitutes a straightforward personal benefits claim brought under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) and alleges miscalculation of plaintiff's benefits. See Pl.Supp.Memo., 6. Plaintiff's second claim is a breach of fiduciary duty claim, premised upon the alleged concealment and misrepresentation regarding the CBAs, but the only relief sought is "tolling of the statute of limitations" with regard to his other claims. See id. at 5-6. Accordingly, if the court finds plaintiff's other claims to be timely, the plaintiff acknowledges that "the Second Claim will serve no purpose and should be dismissed." Id. at 6. Finally, plaintiff clarified that his third claim — that the defendants engaged in a practice of violating the plan by miscalculating benefits for participants receiving workers' compensation — is being brought under § 1132(a)(3) and seeks injunctive relief. See id. at 9-10. The defendant argues that the plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty claim is precluded by Varity. See Def. Memo. of Law, 1.

II Analysis

A Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The defendants first argue that the court should dismiss the plaintiff's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. According to defendants, the complaint must be dismissed because the Merger Agreement, the plaintiff's final day of work, plaintiff's retirement, and plaintiff's disputed pension contributions all occurred prior to January 1, 1976, which the parties agree is the effective date of ERISA's relevant provisions. See Def.Memo. of Law, 20-21; Pl. Reply Memo., 26. The plaintiff counters that the court has subject matter jurisdiction because the basis for his miscalculation claims is the 1985 Miele I settlement agreement, which was reached well after ERISA's effective date. See Pl.Memo. of Law, 23-26.

In enacting ERISA, Congress included a preemptive section providing that ERISA's provisions "shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan [covered by ERISA]." 29 U.S.C. § 1144. The Supreme Court has held that ERISA's preemptive provision must be broadly construed. See Alessi v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., 451 U.S. 504, 101 S.Ct. 1895, 68 L.Ed.2d 402 (1981). As a result, any state law claim which relates to an employee benefit plan covered by ERISA not only is preempted by ERISA but also constitutes a federal claim arising under the laws of the United States. See Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 67, 107 S.Ct. 1542, 95 L.Ed.2d 55 (1987); Board of Trustees of Hotel & Restaurant Employees Local 25 v. Madison Hotel, Inc., 97 F.3d 1479, 1484 (D.C.Cir. 1996). The relatedness requirement has been interpreted broadly. See FMC Corp. v. Holliday, 498 U.S. 52, 58, 111 S.Ct. 403, 112 L.Ed.2d 356 (1990); Madison Hotel, 97 F.3d at 1486. In particular, in cases involving ...


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