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Aries Arditi v. Lighthouse International

January 18, 2011

ARIES ARDITI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LIGHTHOUSE INTERNATIONAL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Denise Cote, District Judge:

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Aries Arditi contends that his employment agreement gives him a right to insist on a monthly pension benefit that is calculated pursuant to the terms of the pension plan that were described in that agreement, as opposed to the amended pension plan as it existed at the time of his retirement. He has moved to remand this action to state court on the ground that it is a simple breach of contract action and is not preempted by Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq. Defendant Lighthouse International ("Lighthouse") opposes remand and has cross-moved to dismiss the action. Since ERISA does preempt Arditi's claims, the motion to remand is denied and the action is dismissed.

BACKGROUND

The following undisputed facts are taken from the complaint and documents integral to it. Arditi was employed by Lighthouse from 1982 to 2000, and accrued 18.83 years of service credit under the Lighthouse Pension Plan ("Plan"). After he left Lighthouse, the company amended its Plan to add a Rule of 85, which entitled any qualified employee to retire and collect her/his pension benefit before reaching the age of 65 if the sum of the employee's age and years of vested service equaled or exceeded 85. The relevant provision of the Plan reads:

Effective April 1, 2001, if a Member's combined age and years of Vesting Service equals 85 or more the early retirement benefit shall be equal to his Accrued Benefit at such Early Retirement Date; however, such early retirement benefit shall not be subject to reduction . . . .

If a former Member is reemployed following a Period of Severance of more than 12 months, he shall again become a Member on his Reemployment Date. Such Member's Vesting Service and Credited Service shall be restored upon his completion of one year of Continuous Service . .

In a separate provision, the Plan acknowledged that Lighthouse retained the right to amend the Plan. It read, that "Lighthouse reserves the right at any time, by action of the Board, to modify or amend the Plan in whole or in part . . . ."

Arditi, in reliance on the Rule of 85 amendment to the Plan returned to Lighthouse, beginning work on July 1, 2002. His written employment agreement ("Agreement") was contained in a letter of June 13, 2002, which was signed by both parties. The Agreement reads in pertinent part:

With respect to the Lighthouse International Pension Plan, in which you are already fully vested, your new employment here will result in reinstatement as a plan member. You now have credited service for purposes of pension calculation of 18.83 years of previous service and the amount of time you work here in the future will be added.

Our retirement plan has now added a Rule of 85 provision that provides an unreduced benefit to employees whose age plus years equal 85 or more. As you are now age 51, your age plus your years of service is approximately 70 years. Assuming you continue to work at the Lighthouse for another eight years, your age then, 59 and years of service then, 26, would equal 85. At that time if you opt to retire you will receive an unreduced pension benefit. (Emphasis supplied.)

On June 30, 2007, Lighthouse froze the Plan, which had the effect of stopping accrual of service time for pension calculation purposes for all members of the Plan.*fn1 Arditi retired on March 19, 2010. In calculating Arditi's pension benefit, the Lighthouse did not recognize Arditi's service for the period July 1, 2007 to his date of retirement, a period of almost three years.

On September 30, 2010, Arditi filed a lawsuit in state court against Lighthouse asserting two causes of action for breach of contract and a declaratory judgment. Lighthouse removed the action to federal court, where it was assigned to this Court as 10 Civ. 7860. Arditi promptly dismissed the action, repleaded his claims, and refiled the lawsuit in state court on November 2, 2010. The re-filed action contained the same two causes of action, but eliminated certain direct reference to the Plan and to ERISA. The action was removed again to federal court.

In the current complaint, Arditi seeks to recover an amount equal to the pension payments that he contends Lighthouse improperly withheld and a judicial declaration that he is entitled to an amount calculated by including in full his service to retirement as required under the Agreement. He asserts that if the Plan had not been frozen, he would have been entitled to a monthly pension payment of $7,132.79 per month or $1,116.28 more than he currently receives. The complaint alleges two claims: a breach of contract claim ...


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