United States District Court, Southern District of New York
June 4, 2002
COMMUNICATION WORKERS OF AMERICA, AFL-CIO AND SUSAN M. ARCHURI, PATRICK RAWLINS, SUSAN MANCHESTER, MICHELENE BERNARDON, PATRICIA SHANLEY, DIANE MANFREDI, AND SANDRA PILECKAS, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
NYNEX CORPORATION, NEW YORK TELEPHONE COMPANY, EMPIRE CITY SUBWAY COMPANY (LIMITED), THE SICKNESS AND ACCIDENT DISABILITY BENEFIT PLAN OF NEW YORK TELEPHONE AND EMPIRE CITY SUBWAY COMPANY (LIMITED), THE NYNEX SICKNESS AND ACCIDENT DISABILITY BENEFIT PLAN, THE EMPLOYEES' BENEFIT COMMITTEE OF NEW YORK TELEPHONE COMPANY AND EMPIRE CITY SUBWAY COMPANY (LIMITED), THE EMPLOYEES' BENEFIT REVIEW COMMITTEE OF NEW YORK TELEPHONE COMPANY AND EMPIRE CITY SUBWAY COMPANY (LIMITED), DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Louis L. Stanton, United States District Judge
Opinion and Order
Both sides move for summary (or partial summary) judgment on the claim
for breach of collective bargaining agreements and for payment of
benefits under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974,
29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Defendants also move for summary judgment
on the remaining counts of the complaint. The complaint charges
defendants with breach of collective bargaining agreements ("CBAs") in
violation of the Labor-Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, and
asserts other claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of
1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.
Plaintiffs claim defendants changed their interpretation and
application of employee benefits plans, to plaintiffs' detriment, in May
1990 or June 1992. As a result, plaintiffs contend, their injuries
warranting accident disability benefits were initially misclassified, or
wrongfully reclassified, to receive less generous sickness disability
benefits, because their injuries were not suffered in direct connection
with the performance of their duties. This change, they argue,
the benefits plans without notice to the
Communications Workers of America, in breach of collective bargaining
agreements and defendants' fiduciary duties under ERISA.
The collective bargaining agreements between the parties incorporate by
reference the Sickness and Accident Disability Benefit Plan (the
The language in the Plan defining accident disability benefits has
remained unchanged since 1971:
1. Participation — All employees shall be
participants in the Accident Disability Benefit Plan
and qualified to receive payments under the Plan on
account of physical disability work by reason of
accidental injury (not including the accidental
injuries specified in Paragraph 12 of Section 6)
arising out of and in the course of employment by the
Company or a Former Affiliate or Associated or Allied
Company from which the employee was reassigned as of
January 1, 1984. . . .
5. Relationship of Injury to Employment —
Accidental injuries shall be considered as arising out
of and in the course of employment only where the
injury has resulted solely from accident during and in
direct connection with the performance of duties to
which the employee is assigned in the service of the
Company, or was assigned by the Former Affiliate or
Associated or Allied Company from which the employee
was reassigned as of January 1, 1984, or which he is
directed to perform by proper authority, or in
voluntarily protecting the Company's property or
interests. . . .
Sickness and Accident Disability Benefit Plan, Sec 5., ¶¶ 1, 5.
(Waldron Aff., Ex. 1).
The definition of "Sickness Disability Benefits" is given at section
4, paragraph one of the Plan:
For the purposes of the Plan, sickness shall include
injury other than accidental injury arising out of and
in the course of employment by the Company or by the
Former Affiliate or Associated or Allied Company from
which an employee was reassigned on January 1, 1984.
The Plan is administered in accordance with a Summary Plan Description
("SPD"), a document required by ERISA and designed to simplify and
explain the terms of the plan. See 29 U.S.C. § 1022;
29 C.F.R. § 2520.102-2(a). The SPD provides:
SICKNESS DISABILITY BENEFITS
This part of the plan provides benefits when your
illness or "off-duty accident" requires mote time
off than the Incidental Absence policy covers.
(An off-duty accident is an accident that occurs
when you aren't working.)
ACCIDENT DISABILITY BENEFITS
This part of the program provides benefits if
you're unable to work due to an on-duty accident.
SPD for NYNEX Disability Plan (January 1991), pp. 4, 14. (Decl. Maher,
Congress intended SPDs to be a primary source of information regarding
plan benefits. "[E]mployees are entitled to rely on the descriptions
contained in the summary." Heidgerd v. Olin Corp., 906 F.2d 903, 907 (2d
Cir. 1990). Heidgerd held that where "terms of a plan and those of a plan
summary conflict, it is the plan summary that controls." Id. at 908.
In Pocchia v. Prudential Insurance Company, the court recognized there
was a limit to the rule in Heidgerd:
While the circuits agree that an SPD controls if a
conflict exists between the underlying policy and the
SPD, . . . many of these courts also agree with us
that that this rule of construction should not be
invoked if no direct conflict exists or if the SPD is
silent on an issue that is described in the underlying
policy. . . .
Pocchia, 74 F. Supp.2d 240, 248 (E.D.N.Y. 1999), quoting Mers v. Marriott
Int'l, 144 F.3d 1014, 1023 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 119 S.Ct. 372
The plaintiffs argue that the SPD is ambiguous because "on-duty" could
be read broadly to mean during working hours, or it could have the
narrower meaning given to it in the Plan, "during and in direct
connection with the performance of duties." The Plan and SPD therefore
conflict, they argue, because the SPD makes a broader promise of
While conceivable in the abstract, that argument fails upon examination
of the actual language employed.
The term "an on-duty accident" means something more limited than "while
you are on the company's property." According to Webster's Third New
International Dictionary (Unabridged) (Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1981), "on
duty" means "assigned to a task or duty: engaged in or responsible for
some specific performance." In the SPD, that distinction is made clear:
it defines an off-duty accident as "an accident that occurs when you
aren't working." That conforms to the dictionary meaning of off duty:
"not assigned to any specific task or duty: free from assignment or
responsibility (men off duty loafing around the barracks)." Id. (emphasis
Thus, there is no conflict between the SPD and the Plan, and no
occasion to invoke a rule favoring the SPD language over that of the
Plan. That reflects common sense: favoring the SPD would do the
plaintiffs no good, for its meaning is not different from the Plan.
Even under plaintiffs' view of the possible scope of the SPD's
language, there would be no more than a good faith dispute over the
meaning of the words and the employee benefit committees' resolution is
clearly not inconsistent with either the language of the SPD or the terms
and purpose of the Plan. "Absent a showing of bad faith or
arbitrariness, the court will not disturb the trustees' interpretations
of a plan as long as they are consistent with the plan's terms and
purpose." Seff v. National Organization of Industrial Trade Unions
Insurance Trust, 781 F. Supp. 1037, 1040 (S.D.N.Y. 1992).
The fact that some prior decisions had been made erroneously
misclassifying off-duty injuries does not mean the plaintiffs were
treated less than fairly.
Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment is denied. Defendants'
motion for summary judgment is granted. The Amended Complaint is
© 1992-2003 VersusLaw Inc.