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Frommert v. Conkright

January 24, 2007

PAUL J. FROMMERT, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SALLY L. CONKRIGHT, PATRICIA M. NAZEMETZ AND LAWRENCE M. BECKER, XEROX CORPORATION RETIREMENT INCOME GUARANTEE PLAN ADMINISTRATORS AND XEROX CORPORATION RETIREMENT INCOME GUARANTEE PLAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

This decision constitutes the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between employees of Xerox Corporation and administrators of Xerox's retirement plan, the Xerox Corporation Retirement Income Guarantee Plan ("the Plan"), concerning calculation of retirement benefits. The dispute involves a relatively small group of employees who previously left employment at Xerox, received a lump-sum distribution upon their initial departure, and then were rehired by Xerox years later. Those employees are now contemplating retirement, or have retired, and the issue in dispute is how their present retirement benefits should be calculated.

With respect to this group of rehired employees, the Plan is designed so that an employee's total years of employment at Xerox, regardless of whether there was a break in service, are counted in calculating the employee's retirement benefits. Generally, the relevant pension calculations are based on the employee's total years of employment times a percentage of the employee's five highest-paying calendar years with Xerox. Both sides in this litigation agree that to avoid duplication of benefits, some sort of offset against current benefits is necessary to reflect the employee's receipt of monies at the time of the prior separation from employment. Just how that offset against current benefits should be calculated, though, has been a matter of much dispute and has engendered a great deal of litigation.

Familiarity with this Court's several prior decisions involving these parties, see 328 F.Supp.2d 420 (W.D.N.Y. 2004); 206 F.Supp.2d 435 (W.D.N.Y. 2002), and also the Second Circuit's decision of January 6, 2006, 433 F.3d 254 ("Second Circuit decision") is presumed. These decisions set out in great detail the relevant facts and disputed issues between the parties. There is, therefore, no need to restate those matters here.

The Second Circuit decision, which was on an appeal from two of this Court's prior decisions dismissing some of plaintiff's claims and granting summary judgment in favor of defendants on the remaining claims, resolved many of the issues raised between the parties. The Second Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to this Court for further proceedings.

The Second Circuit held that the Plan's use of a so-called phantom account in determining present benefits violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq., in several respects. First, the Plan's formula constituted a "retroactive cut-back" of benefits, 433 F.3d at 268, contrary to § 204(g) of ERISA. In addition, the court found that employees were not given proper notice in the Summary Plan Description ("SPD") of the nature and scope of the phantom account, at least prior to 1998, when the SPD was amended to include the phantom account and describe the offset procedure. Id. at 263, 269.

The Second Circuit determined that employees rehired after 1998 had sufficient notice as to the manner by which Xerox intended to treat their previous distribution. For those rehired prior 1998, though, the Second Circuit remanded to this Court and directed me to "utilize an appropriate pre-amendment [1998] calculation," id. at 268, without using the "phantom account," to determine current benefits.

Specifically, the Second Circuit directed as follows:

On remand, the remedy crafted by the district court for those employees rehired prior to 1998 should utilize an appropriate pre-amendment calculation to determine their benefits. We recognize the difficulty that this task poses because of the ambiguous manner in which the pre-amendment terms of the Plan described how prior distributions were to be treated. As guidance for the Court, we suggest that it may wish to employ equitable principles when determining the appropriate calculation in fashioning the appropriate remedy.

Id.

Subsequent to the Second Circuit's decision, the Court met with counsel to determine how best to proceed. The parties agreed to work together to see if they could resolve the issues remaining on remand. Although the parties appear to have spent some time attempting to reach a settlement, it is now apparent that they are unable, or unwilling, to settle.

The Court conducted a two-day hearing on the remedial issues raised by the Second Circuit and has received both pre-hearing and post-hearing memoranda from both sides. The parties have also discussed several cases from other jurisdictions dealing with similar issues. Having considered both sides' submissions and arguments, the Court now issues this Decision and Order concerning the issues before it on remand.

DISCUSSION

I. The Appropriate Calculation of Plaintiffs' Benefits

This Court's task on remand is made easier in many respects by the breadth of the Second Circuit decision. The Circuit resolved many issues and has clearly established the law of the case in many respects. For example, it can no longer be disputed that employees were not give proper notice in either the Plan or the relevant SPD as to the nature of the phantom account and its operation. Utilization of this phantom account or anything similar to it has been soundly rejected by the Court of Appeals in this case as well as a previous case involving the same Plan, Layaou v. Xerox Corporation, 238 F.3d 205 (2d Cir. 2001). Other courts have reached the same conclusion. Miller v. Xerox Corp. Ret. Income Guarantee Plan, 464 F.3d 871 (9th Cir. 2006); Berger v. Xerox Corp. Ret. Income Guarantee Plan, 338 F.3d 755 (7th Cir. 2003). It is clear, then, that Xerox may not lawfully use the phantom account mechanism, as to either the named plaintiffs in this lawsuit, or anyone else who was rehired by Xerox prior to 1998, after having previously received a distribution of pension benefits. The Second Circuit has addressed this issue more than once, and Xerox may not continue to utilize this rejected formula.

The Second Circuit also rejected Xerox's contention that a procedure utilizing a phantom account has always been a part of the Plan, even prior to 1998. 433 F.3d at 256. The Circuit determined that Xerox's use of the phantom account constituted a retroactive diminution of benefits, contrary to the law. Id. at 268. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals rejected Xerox's contention that it had properly amended the Plan and notified the Plan's participants concerning utilization of the phantom account, prior to 1998. Id. at 263.

Although the Circuit clearly precluded use of the phantom account in determining how to treat prior distributions, it did little to elucidate what formula should be adopted, except to suggest using an "appropriate pre-amendment calculation" guided by equitable principles in determining the appropriate remedy for affected employees. Id. at 268.

The problem is that if one removes the phantom account mechanism, there is little else remaining. The Circuit expressly recognized this by noting the "difficulty" confronting the district court "because of the ambiguous manner in which the pre-amendment terms of the Plan described how prior distributions were to be treated." Id. at 268.

Describing the procedures to be utilized prior to the 1998 amendments as "ambiguous" is generous. In fact, virtually nothing is set forth in either the Plan or the SPD as to the precise mechanism for taking into account a prior distribution in calculating an employee's present benefits after a rehire.

Some testimony at the hearing before me focused on the appropriate economic, financial and actuarial methods for treating prior distributions. But this Court is not charged with writing a sound retirement plan. Rather, I must interpret the Plan as written and consider what a reasonable employee would have understood to be the case concerning the effect of prior distributions. If the employee had no notice of the "phantom account," he also had no notice of some of the other mechanisms suggested by witnesses at the remand hearing before me. What is "best" from a financial or actuarial point of view is not what the Court has been charged with determining. The Court's task, as directed by the Court of Appeals, is simply to determine, based on the language of the Plan and the SPD, what benefits are now due this group of rehired employees.

To the extent that there is some ambiguity as to the precise manner by which prior distributions are to be offset from present benefits, it is Xerox, not the employees, who should suffer. See Burke v. Kodak Ret. Income Plan, 336 F.3d 103, 113 (2d Cir. 2003) ("The consequences of an inaccurate SPD must be placed on the employer"). It was defendants' obligation to provide a clear description, in the SPD and in the Plan itself, as to how those prior distributions would be treated. To the extent that the Plan was constituted, at Xerox's doing, to consider all prior years of service, defendants had the burden of elucidating precisely how that would be accomplished.

As noted by the Court of Appeals in this case, 433 F.3d at 258, the Plan does have a provision, § 9.6, dealing with "nonduplication of benefits." That section provides as follows:

Nonduplication of Benefits. In the event any part of or all of a Member's accrued benefit is distributed to him prior to his Normal Retirement Date, if Section 8.8 [dealing with incompetent beneficiaries] does not apply to such distribution and such Member at any time thereafter recommences active participation in the Plan, the accrued benefit of such Member based on all Years of Participation shall be offset by the accrued benefit attributable to such distribution. "Accrued benefit," as used in § 9.6, is defined at § 1.1 as follows:

The normal retirement benefit which a Member has earned up to any date, and which is payable at Normal Retirement Date in an amount ...


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