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Pickreign v. Bulman

June 12, 2008

JOHN R. PICKREIGN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LARRY S. BULMAN, AS TRUSTEE OF THE UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS LOCAL 773 PENSION PLAN; EDWARD J. FURR, AS TRUSTEE OF THE UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS LOCAL 773 PENSION PLAN; JOHN A. LAPLANTE, JR., AS TRUSTEE OF THE UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS LOCAL 773 PENSION PLAN; DANIEL R. MONROE, AS TRUSTEE OF THE UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS LOCAL 773 PENSION PLAN; TERRY BULMAN, AS TRUSTEE OF THE UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS LOCAL 773 PENSION PLAN; AND THE UNITED ASSOCIATION OF PLUMBERS LOCAL 773 PENSION PLAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David R. Homer U.S. Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff John R. Pickreign ("Pickreign") commenced this action*fn1 seeking a judgment against defendants The United Association of Plumbers Local 773 Pension Plan and its five trustees (collectively referred to herein as the "Trustees") (1) declaring that Pickreign is entitled to a pension and (2) awarding Pickreign benefits from November 17, 1998 to the date of judgment. Compl. (Docket No. 1, Ex. B) at p. 4. A non-jury trial was held on May 22, 2008. In accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 52, what follows constitutes the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. Based on those findings and conclusions, judgment is granted to the Trustees.

I. Background

Pickreign was born on November 17, 1936. Ex. D-37.*fn2 From 1963 to May 31, 1975, Pickreign was employed full-time as a plumber by Fobare & Sons, a plumbing contractor in Saranac Lake, located in northeastern New York State. During the entire period of his employment at Fobare & Sons, Pickreign was a member of Local 497 of the United Association of Plumbers in Plattsburgh, New York. Pickreign terminated his employment at Fobare & Sons to start his own plumbing contracting business and never again worked as a union plumber.

Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement between Local 497 and participating contractors, a pension plan for union employees was established in 1960. Ex. 1 at 1. The agreement required employers to contribute to the pension plan on behalf of qualifying Notice of Removal (Docket No. 1). Removal was predicated on the Employees Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 28 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441 and 1446. Id. at ¶¶6, 7. union members, such as Pickreign. Id. On December 31, 1975, Local 497 merged its pension plan with that of Local 773 located in Glens Falls, New York to form the pension plan at issue in this case [hereinafter the "Plan"]. Ex. 3.*fn3 The Plan sets forth the terms and conditions of benefits for participating members. The earliest version of the Plan relevant herein was adopted in 1979. Ex. D-6.*fn4 The Plan was thereafter revised and restated in 1985, 1994, and 2002. Exs. D-7, -10, -27. At all times, the Plan has been overseen by a Board of Trustees, administered by a manager, and advised by a private actuarial firm. At present, the Plan administers benefits for over 400 participants and receives contributions from approximate fifty employers.

As of May 31, 1975 when Pickreign last worked as a union member, the Local 497 pension plan required that an individual have accumulated a minimum of twenty years of credited service to obtain entitlement to benefits. Ex. 1 at 6. However, the merger agreement between the pension plans of Locals 497 and 773 provided that the Plan "will pay pension benefits to former members of [Local 497] pursuant to its rules and regulations, giving credit to former members of [Local 497] for service in [Local 497] on the same basis as credit is given for service in [Local 773]." Ex. 3 at 2. However, ERISA became effective on January 1, 1975 and became applicable to the Plan for vesting requirements at the commencement of the Plan's year on June 1, 1976.*fn5 See 29 U.S.C. §§ 1031, 1061, 1114.

ERISA reduced the minimum vesting period to ten years. Id. at § 1053(a). Thus, one year following Pickreign's last day of employment as a union member, the minimum period for an employee to vest under the Plan became ten years.

Pickreign turned sixty-two on November 17, 1998 and began making inquiries to the Trustees about his eligibility for benefits. See, e.g., Ex. D-14. The most recent restatement of the Plan then in effect had been adopted in November 1994. Ex. D-10. It required ten years of credited service for members whose credited service terminated between June 1, 1976 and May 31, 1990. Id. at § 4.07(B). It required fifteen years of credited service for members whose credited service terminated between June 1, 1974 and May 31, 1976. Id. at § 4.05(B). For members whose credited service terminated before June 1, 1976, credited service was forfeited if the member had not vested at the time of the termination. Id. at § 4.02. When Pickreign terminated his union employment on May 31, 1975, Plan records credited him with 11.9 years of service. Exs. D-4, D-22; see also Ex. D-10 at § 5.02. Moreover, a member who wished to receive benefits after turning fifty-five and before age sixty-five was required to have accrued at least fifteen years of credited service. Id. at §§ 5.03, 5.04.

After a series of communications between Pickreign and the Trustees, the Plan manager advised Pickreign in a letter dated January 6, 2000 that Pickreign did not qualify for benefits because he had not accrued fifteen years of credited service before the termination of his union employment on May 31, 1975. Ex. D-16. By letter dated September 12, 2000, Pickreign submitted to the Trustees a formal application for benefits. Ex. D-18. In his application, Pickreign asserted that he was entitled to fifteen years of credited service and that he was entitled to a monthly benefit of $1,012.50 from age sixty-two. Id.*fn6

The "Hour Bank" provision in the 1994 version of the Plan provided as follows: For use in determining Future Pension Service hereunder, and not Vesting Service,*fn7 if, in any one Plan Year after May 31, 1972, an Employee is credited with more than 1200 hours of Pension Service,*fn8 such hours in excess of 1200 shall not be credited to him for such Plan Year, but shall be credited to him in the earliest Plan Year, prior to or subsequent to the Plan Year, but shall be credited to him in the earliest Plan Year, prior to or subsequent to the Plan Year in which such excess is earned, but not to a Plan Year more than two Plan Years after the Plan Year in which such excess is earned nor more than one Plan Year prior to the Plan Year in which such excess is earned. The amount of such excess hours credited to an Employee in any such Plan Year shall be no more than that which is necessary to raise his earned hours for such Plan Year to 1200. Subject to the limit contained in the prior sentence, excess hours must be credited to the Employee as soon as possible after the Plan Year in which such excess hours were earned. No such crediting of excess hours can be made to a Plan Year in which the employee's Pension Date occurs. 1200 hours is revised to 1560 hours effective June 1, 1985 and effective June 1, 1990, there is no limit on the number of hours of Pension Service in any Plan Year.

Ex. D-10 at § 3.05. Pickreign contended that he worked at least forty hours per week and at least fifty weeks per year throughout his employment with Fobare & Sons, or at least 2,000 hours per year. The Hour Bank provision would arguably serve to allow Pickreign to apply the 800 excess hours he worked each year beyond the 1,200 hour minimum to extend his break-in-service*fn9 beyond June 1, 1976 when the vesting requirement was reduced to ten years.

The Plan manager rejected Pickreign's application. He concluded from Plan records that at the time of Pickreign's break-in-service on May 31, 1975, Pickreign had accrued 11.9 years of credited service, the Hour Bank provision did not apply to Pickreign, and the 11.9 years of credited service fell short of the fifteen-year minimum required for vesting. Pickreign was advised of the denial in a letter dated October 19, 2000. Ex. D-19. The letter advised Pickreign of his right to appeal the denial to the Trustees and by letter dated October 25, 2000, Pickreign appealed. Ex. D-20. The appeal was heard by the Trustees on December 6, 2000. Ex. D-21. As they advised Pickreign in a letter dated December 8, 2000, the Trustees "determined that your years of credited service vested and consequently you are eligible for a pension." Ex. D-22.*fn10 The Trustees determined that Pickreign had accrued 11.9 credited years, not the fifteen he claimed, and was eligible to receive benefits effective February 1, 2001 in a monthly amount of $142.80, not the $1, 012.50 claimed by Pickreign. Id. ; see also Ex. D-26.

Contending that he was entitled to a higher monthly benefit, Pickreign communicated with the Plan manager concerning the calculation of the benefit. Ex. D-24. In response, the Plan manager sought the opinion of the Plan's actuarial firm as to the proper amount. Ex. D-25. The actuarial firm advised that "[o]ur opinion is that Mr. Pickreign was not vested at the time of his separation from service and is not eligible for any benefit . . ." but that if a benefit was to be paid, it should not exceed the amount already awarded. Ex. D-26. The Plan manager adhered to the prior award and Pickreign filed a second formal appeal limited to the Trustees' determination of the amount of the monthly ...


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