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LEVIN v. RAYNOR

December 16, 2004.

DOUGLAS LEVIN, MAX ZIMNY, THEODORE BERNSTEIN, IRWIN SOLOMON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BRUCE RAYNOR, EDGAR ROMNEY, EDGAR W. CLARK, JR., WILLIAM LEE, UNION OF NEEDLESTRADES, INDUSTRIAL & TEXTILE EMPLOYEES ("UNITE"), UNITE STAFF HEALTH BENEFITS PLAN, and UNITE HEALTH BENEFITS COMMITTEE, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GEORGE DANIELS, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

Retired employees and their beneficiaries bring suit against their union under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") asserting claims for wrongful reduction of life insurance benefits, breach of fiduciary duty and failure to provide information summaries. Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

  Plaintiffs are the retirees or beneficiaries of retirees of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union ("ILGWU") and its alleged successor-in-interest, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees ("UNITE") (collectively, the "Union").*fn1 Plaintiffs bring suit challenging UNITE's decision to reduce plaintiffs' individual life insurance benefit to $50,000.00 and its subsequent decision to further reduce the benefit to $5,000.*fn2 Plaintiffs allege that these reductions are in violation of the statutory provisions of ERISA.*fn3

  Defendant ILGWU began providing life insurance to its current employees in 1938.*fn4 The ILGWU recruited and retained employees "by offering them a competitive employment package, in particular one which emphasized retirement security." Complaint at 22, ¶ 122. Plaintiffs claim that although the ILGWU offered low salaries, it compensated its employees through its life insurance benefits. Although neither the ILGWU nor UNITE adopted a separate formal plan instrument establishing the life insurance plan, plaintiffs allege that the benefit was informally created and established through letters, insurance contracts and booklets sent to employees. The 1958 Summary Plan Description ("SPD"), provides that:
[w]hile this is not part of the ILGWU Staff Retirement Fund Plan, the ILGWU has agreed to the following:
After a member is retired, there shall be continued for his benefit the employees' group life insurance policy which is in effect on his retirement date.
Complaint at 23, ¶ 123. Plaintiffs also rely on language in letters sent by the Union to retirees that allegedly promised continuous and unreduced life insurance. Plaintiffs claim that through these documents, the ILGWU established a welfare benefit plan enforceable under ERISA.

  Plaintiffs refer to this offered plan as the ILGWU Retiree Life Insurance Plan and subsequently, the UNITE Retiree Life Insurance Plan (collectively, "Retiree Life Insurance Plan"). Plaintiffs claim that it provided to retirees and beneficiaries, after 15 years of service, "a vested right to receive unreduced retiree life insurance coverage, in the amount that he or she had at the time of retirement, at no additional cost to him or her, commencing when the retiree started receiving retirement benefits following the employee's employment" with the ILGWU. Complaint at 23, ¶ 125.

  Plaintiffs additionally argue that life insurance benefits for a subclass of plaintiffs were offered in 1996, when the Union, in a letter dated May 16, 1998 from its President, presented these plaintiffs with a choice between: (A) better dental benefits and life insurance during active employment and no life insurance benefit after retirement; or (B) lower dental benefits and life insurance coverage that continued into retirement, provided that the employee completed 15 or more years of employment.*fn5 Each plaintiff given the choice selected Option B. Plaintiffs claim, therefore, that they were promised unreduced life insurance benefits that would vest once they completed 15 or more years of employment.

  Defendants contend that despite these documents, the life insurance benefits for all plaintiffs were governed by the summary plan descriptions ("SPDs") distributed by the ILGWU in 1990 and again in 1994. These SPDs purportedly established the formal guidelines governing the life insurance benefits offered by the Union. Plaintiffs assert, however, that the language in the SPDs support their contention that the SPDs extended to current employees the same life insurance benefits that were available to retirees prior to the SPDs' creation.

  Defendants argue that the 1990 and 1994 SPDs contained reservation of rights clauses that preserved their right to reduce or terminate plaintiffs' life insurance benefits. Plaintiffs assert, however, that these SPDs were not distributed to retirees at all and were not "systematically distributed" to current staff. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that the reservation of rights clause in the 1994 SPD applied only to "staff benefits" and not retiree benefits.

  Plaintiffs submitted a claim contesting the first reduction. Defendants denied that claim. Plaintiffs appealed that denial. Defendants also denied the appeal. Plaintiffs filed suit asserting: declaratory relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 and ERISA § 502(a)(3) against all defendants; recovery of benefits pursuant to ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B) against defendants Retiree Life Insurance Plan and Life/Dental Plan B; breach of fiduciary duty pursuant to ERISA §§ 404, 405, and 502(A)(3) against defendants Raynor, Romney, Clark, Jr., Lee, UNITE, Staff Health Benefits Plan and UNITE Health Benefits Committee; equitable estoppel against all defendants; failure to provide SPDs under ERISA § 104 and failure to provide notice of elimination of benefits under ERISA § 204(h) against all defendants; and breach of fiduciary duty pursuant to ERISA §§ 404, 405 and 502(a)(3) against defendants Raynor, Romney, Clark, Jr., Lee, UNITE, Staff Health Benefits Plan, and UNITE Health Benefits Committee.

  Defendants moved to dismiss. Defendants argue that plaintiffs cannot point to language in any document in support of plaintiffs' allegation that they were promised unreduced life insurance benefits. Moreover, defendants contend that the reservation of rights clauses in the 1990 and 1994 SPDs, whereby defendants maintained their right to modify or alter plaintiffs' life insurance benefit, support a finding that vested unreduced life insurance benefits were never promised. Defendants contend that even if plaintiffs could point to language that could be interpreted as promising unreduced lifetime life insurance benefits, defendant UNITE did not assume this responsibility upon its merger with the ILGWU. Defendants further maintain that plaintiffs' second and third causes of action for recovery of benefits and breach of fiduciary duty are barred under the relevant statute of limitations. Defendants also move to dismiss plaintiffs' fifth and sixth causes of action for failure to distribute the SPDs and breach of fiduciary duties for failure to state a claim.

  DISCUSSION

  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a party to move to dismiss a complaint where the complaint "fail[s] . . . to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). In reviewing a motion to dismiss, this Court accepts the allegations in the complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Patel v. Searles, 305 F.3d 130, 134-35 (2d Cir. 2002). A motion to dismiss will only be granted if the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of its claim that would entitle it to relief. See Citibank, N.A. v. K-H Corp., 968 F.2d 1489, 1494 (2d Cir. 1992). In considering a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a district court must limit itself to facts stated in the complaint, or in documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated in the complaint by reference. See Kramer v. Time Warner, Inc., 937 F.2d 767, 773 (2d Cir. 1991); see also Pani v. Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, 152 F.3d 67, 71 (2d Cir. 1998) (in evaluating motions to dismiss, a court must limit its review to the allegations contained within the four corner's of the complaint).

  A. Contractual Vesting Claim for Retirees

  There are two types of employee benefit plans covered by ERISA: pension plans and welfare plans. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 1002(1) & (2)(A). The vesting of these plans under ERISA is different depending on the type of plan at issue. Pension plans are subject to statutory vesting requirements that regulate minimum standards for accrual of benefits and provide for scheduled vesting. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 1053-1054. Welfare benefit plans, however, are specifically exempted from the automatic vesting requirement. See 29 U.S.C. 1051(1). An employer, therefore, can amend or terminate welfare benefit plans at any time. See American Fed'n of Grain Millers, AFFL-CIO v. Int'l Multifoods Corp., 116 F.3d 976, 979 (2d Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). A life insurance benefit plan, like the one at issue, is classified as a welfare plan under ERISA and is not subject to the automatic vesting requirement. See 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1). Despite being exempt from automatic vesting, "if any employer promises vested benefits, that promise will be enforced." Id. at 980. In order to state a contractual vesting claim, plaintiffs must "point ...


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