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Zdzienicki v. Consolidated Edison Co. of New York

August 29, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sidney H. Stein, U.S. District Judge


I. Introduction

From the beginning of her employment at the Consolidated Edison Company ofNew York, Inc. ("Con Edison") in 1980 through her dismissal ten years later in 1990, Maria Zdzienicki maintained that she was born on July 30, 1939. Indeed, she provided the company with sworn documents. including her Cert~ficateo f Naturalization as a Unlted States citizen, confirming that to be the case. In 2003, however, with her pension benefits about to commence, Zdzienicki infonned Con Edison that she was actually born on July 30, 1934 - five years earlier than she had previously represented a n d was therefore entitled to a commensurately larger pension. As proof, Zdzienicki submitted copies of her Polish birth certificate, Polish marriage license and Polish passport, each of which reflected 1934 as her year of birth. The administrator of Con Edison's pension plan, however. denied Zdzien~cki's request for additional benefits and explained that there was sufficient evidence in the record to conclude that she was born in 1939. not 1934, regardless of the authenticity vel non of the newly-submitted Polish documents.

Zdzienicki claims that the plan administrator's decision was arbitrary and capricious it1 violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. ("ERISA). The parties, relying on the facts in the administrative record and defendants' stipulation that the plan administrator did not attempt to investigate whether the new Polish documents were in fact authentic, have filed cross motions for summary judgment. Because the Court finds that the plan administralor's decision to calculate Zdzienicki's pension benefits using July 30, 1939 as her year of birth was supported by substantial evidence and was not arbitrary and capricious, defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted, plaintiffs motion for summary judgment is denied and the complaint is dismissed

II. Background

The following facts are drawn from the administrative record and are undisputed.

When Zdzienicki began working for Con Edison in the summer of 1980, she became a participant in the company's employee pension plan, which at that time calculated pension benefits based on a combination of an employee's age and years of service. (AR 230-35.)*fn1 The plan did not specify how an employee's age is to be discerned; rather, it gave discretionary authority to the "Plan Administrator" to "interpret[]" the terms of the plan, "detemiin[e] eligibility for and entitlement to benefits under the Plati' and "determin[e] any facts and resolv[e] any questions" with respect to administration of the plan. (AR 326.)

As a new employee, Zdzienicki was required upon commencing employment to submit a document establishing her date ol'birth. (AR 364, 370-71, 442.) To fulfill this requirement, Zdzienicki signed a "Certification of Date of Birth" attesting that she was born on .luly 30, 1939. (AR 370.) The certification declared: "I make this statement with the understanding that it is to be used by [Con Edison] in establishing my date of birth." (Id.) As verification of her age, Zdzienicki presented her Certificate of Naturalization, a document issued by the U.S. Departmcnt of Justice, that listed her date of birth as July 30, 1939. (AR 444-45.) Zdzienicki also signed an "Employment Authorization" form showing that same datc. (AR 387.)

During her 10-year employment at Con Edison, Zdzienicki did not attempt to alter the company's records of her date of birth. (AR 469-474.) At one point, she submitted a diploma from the Warsaw University of Technology that listed her birth date as July 30. 1939. (AR 346.)

Zdzienicki was terminated for insubordination in April 1990. (AR 453.) In July of that year, and then again in August, she was sent a package of information that explained how her pension benefits were to be calculated and infontled her that "the earliest date" on which she would receive her pension was "January 1,2004." (R 477-85.) This calculation was based on a July 30, 1939 birth date. (AR 479.) The benefits package gave Zdzienicki an option: she could sign and return a form elccting to cash out her benefits immediately or do nothing and begin receiving her deferred pension in January 2004. (Id) Zdzienicki did not respond to these mailings. (AR 486.)

Zdzienicki did, however, continue to represent that she was born in 1939. In October 1990, Zdzienicki submitted "Continuation of Health Care Coverage" ("COBRA") forms listing in three separate locations what appears to this Court to be July 30, 1939 as her birth date.*fn2 (AR 463-466.) Two weeks later, at a hearing before an administrative law judge in which she claimed that her tcm~inationw as due lo age discrimination, Zdzienicki testified under oath that she was 52 years old - a number that would mean she was born in 1938, a year earlier than she had previously represented. (AR 190,400.) In 1993, Zdzienicki submitted to Con Edison diagnostic laboratory reports concerning her health in order to secure payment under the company's retlree medical insurance program; those reports clearly listed July 30, 1939 as her birth date. (AR 396-98, 461-62.)

The administrative record includes no communications between Zdzienicki and Con Edison over the next ten years. In February 2003 l e s s than a year before the commencement of her pension payments - Con Edison generated a retirement payment report for Zdzienicki that utilized July 30. 1939 as her date of birth in calculating her benefits schedule. (AR 488-90.) Two months later, Zdzienicki sent a facsimile to James Grossi, a human resources supervisor at Con Edison, enclosing (I) a copy and English translation of a Polish document titled "Abridged Copy of Birth Certificate" showing a date of birth of "30.07.1934" - five years earlier than the date reflected in the company's records; and (2) a document titled "Translation from Polish: Abstract of a Certificate of Mamage," that did not include a reference to her date of birth. (AR 422-30.) On November 5, 2003, Grossi wrote Zdzienicki advising her that her deferred pension benefit would be "effective January 1,2004"; this meant that Con Edison would continue to consider 1939 as her year ofbirth. (AR 434-38.)

A week later, Zdzienicki's lawyer sent a letter to counsel for Con Edison requesting that Zdzienicki's pension benefits be calculated based on a July 30. 1934 birth date. (AR 336.) Included with the letter were: (1) the same copy and translation of Zdzienicki's "Abridged Copy of Birth Certificate" that had been faxed to Grossi and that showed a date of birth of July 30, 1934; (2) a copy and English translation of a Polish document titled "Abridged Transcript of Mamage Certificate" that listed July 30, 1934 as Zdzienicki's date ofbirth (this was a different document than the "Abstract of a Certificate of Mamage" that had bccn faxed to Grossi); and (3) a copy of Zdzienicki's Polish passport, which included a handwritten birth datc of July 30, 1934. (AR 337-44.)

Con Edison's counsel responded with a letter sent on November 24,2003 listing the extensive prior representations Zdzienicki had made to Con Edison concerning her age and noting that a certified copy of her "Abstract of Driving Record" on file with the New York Department of Motor Vehicles showed her birth date as July 30, 1939. (AR 350-51 .) The letter concluded: "Thus far, we have determined that your client uses July 30, 1939 as her birth date for her Certificate of Naturalization, her birth certificate equivalency at ...

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