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Petri v. Sheet Metal Workers' Nat'l Pension Fund

September 28, 2009

JOHN PETRI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SHEET METAL WORKERS' NAT'L PENSION FUND, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John G. Koeltl, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This is an action arising from an allegedly wrongful refusal to reinstate Early Retirement Pension benefits under a union employee benefits plan subject to the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. The Sheet Metal Workers' National Pension Fund ("the Fund"; collectively with the Fund's Board of Trustees, "the defendants") terminated the plaintiff John Petri's Early Retirement Pension benefits when the Fund determined that the plaintiff was engaged in disqualifying employment in violation of the Plan regulations. The Fund's Appeals Committee upheld that determination. The plaintiff now seeks review of the Appeals Committee decision, requesting reinstatement of his Early Retirement Pension benefits and additional equitable relief. The defendants move for summary judgment and the plaintiff opposes that motion.

I.

The standard for granting summary judgment is well established. Summary judgment may not be granted unless "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs. Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1223 (2d Cir. 1994). "[T]he trial court's task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution." Gallo, 22 F.3d at 1224. The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying the matter that it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The substantive law governing the case will identify those facts that are material and "only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

Summary judgment is appropriate if it appears that the non-moving party cannot prove an element that is essential to the non-moving party's case and on which it will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 805-06 (1999); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Powell v. Nat'l Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 364 F.3d 79, 84 (2d Cir. 2004). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); see also Gallo, 22 F.3d at 1223. Summary judgment is improper if there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Chambers v. T.R.M. Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). If the moving party meets its initial burden of showing a lack of a material issue of fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to come forward with "specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). The non-moving party must produce evidence in the record and "may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible." Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 532 (2d Cir. 1993); see also Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105, 114-15 (2d Cir. 1998); Cummins v. Suntrust Capital Mkts., Inc., No. 07 Civ. 4633, 2009 WL 2569127, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 20, 2009).

II.

The following facts are undisputed except where otherwise noted.

The Fund is a multiemployer jointly-administered labor-management pension fund established pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 186(c)(5). (Defendants' Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts ("Defs.' 56.1 Stmt.") ¶ 1; Plaintiff's Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts ("Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt.") ¶ 1.) The Fund is likewise a tax-qualified multiemployer defined employee pension benefit plan under 29 U.S.C. §§ 1002(2)-(3) & (37), maintained for the purpose of providing retirement and other benefits to eligible participants. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 1; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 1.) The Trustees of the Fund determine eligibility for pension benefits and the benefits are paid from a fund to which contributing employers contribute. (Defendants' Reply Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Material Facts ("Defs.' Reply 56.1 Stmt.") ¶ 41; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 41.)

The Fund is governed by Rules and Regulations ("the Plan") and an Amended and Restated Declaration of Trust ("the Agreement"). (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2.) Under the Plan and the Agreement, the Trustees of the Fund have discretionary authority over construction of the Agreement and determinations of pension eligibility and benefits. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 3-4; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 3-4.) Under the Plan an employee must "retire" before receiving Early Retirement Pension benefits, and an employee is not "retired" if the employee is engaged in Disqualifying Employment. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 5-6; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 5-6.)

The plaintiff began work in the sheet metal industry in 1960 as a member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 38, and accrued 24 years and 3 months of Pension Credit by 1988. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 7-8; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 7-8.) During the 1980s, the plaintiff started two corporations, Petri Construction and Sheet Metal Master, Inc., which performed roofing, siding and related residential contractor work. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9; Pl's 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9.) The parties agree that the plaintiff earned no Pension Credits after 1988, but they disagree as to whether he was employed as the owner of Sheet Metal Master after 1988. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.) The plaintiff alleges that he did not work as the owner of Sheet Metal Master during the entire period between 1988 and 2002, and that the company was only kept open for the purpose of maintaining family health insurance. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.) The defendants, on the other hand, allege that the plaintiff worked as the owner of Petri Construction and Sheet Metal Master during the entire period from 1988 to 2002. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.)

On April 24, 2002, the plaintiff submitted a Retirement Declaration certifying that his last employment in the sheet metal industry was "8/97", that he had not worked in Disqualifying Employment after that day, and he applied for Early Retirement Pension benefits. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 11-12; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 11-12.) Under the Retirement Declaration and the Plan the plaintiff was required to notify the Fund within twenty-one days of starting any work that may be Disqualifying Employment, and the plaintiff's benefits may be denied, suspended or discontinued-and repayment required-if the plaintiff made any willfully false or fraudulent statements material to his benefits claim. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 13-14; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 13-14.) Effective April 1, 2002, the Fund began paying the plaintiff Early Retirement Pension benefits. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 13; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 13.) The parties dispute whether the plaintiff qualified as "retired" under the Plan when payments commenced. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 35; Defs.' Reply 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 35.)

The Fund selected the plaintiff for an earnings audit in 2006, although the parties disagree as to how he was selected. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 14; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 14.) The defendants allege that the audit was random, while the plaintiff blames personal animosity between himself; Ken Colombo, the Fund Coordinator; and Gino Colombo, Ken Colombo's father and former Business Manager of Local 38. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 14; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 14, 36; Defs.' Reply 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 36.) The audit revealed Social Security Administration records of plaintiff's earnings from Sheet Metal Master from 1999 to 2005, although the parties dispute whether those earnings were from employment. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 15-16; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 15-16.)

In a letter dated September 12, 2006, the Fund advised the plaintiff that he was engaged in Disqualifying Employment and that his Early Retirement Benefits were terminated, and it notified him of his right to appeal the Fund's decision to the Appeals Committee. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 19-24; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 19-24, 37(G); Defs.' Reply 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 37(G).) The letter also indicated that the Fund expected the plaintiff to reimburse the Fund the $76,194.00 in benefits that had already been paid. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 23; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 23.) The plaintiff alleges that there is a material issue of fact regarding whether the Fund's decision to terminate benefits was made by Ken Colombo or Debbie Elkins, the Fund Pension Manager. (Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 37.) The defendants dispute this uncertainty and argue in any case that it is not material to the issues before this Court because the decision at issue in this case is the subsequent decision of the Appeals Committee. (Defs.' Reply 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 37.)

In a February 5, 2007 letter, the plaintiff appealed the Fund's determination to the Appeals Committee. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 25; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 25.) The letter acknowledged that Sheet Metal Master had been in the "residential siding and roofing business," including "slate and tile repair, shingle roofing and some remodeling and carpentry work," but claimed that the company was kept open only for health insurance purposes, only performed a "few small remodeling jobs for friends," and that its recent income came only from repayment of officer loans, equipment and inventory sales, and was taken as officers salaries to meet health insurance requirements. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 26, 29; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 26, 29; Decl. of Marc E. LeBlanc Ex. D, at SMWNPF-0003, Sept. 24, 2008 ("LeBlanc Decl.").) The same letter indicated that Sheet Metal Master had ceased operations in 2005, but failed to disclose the existence of John's Metal Works. (Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 27; Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 27.) In a March 5, 2007 letter, the plaintiff admitted that John's Metal Works was ...


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