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Marta Mitchell-White, Individually and On Behalf of All Others Similarly v. Northwest Airlines

February 24, 2011

MARTA MITCHELL-WHITE, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., DELTA AIRLINES, INC., AS SUCCESSOR TO OPINION AND ORDER NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., AND NORTHWEST AIRLINES PENSION PLAN FOR CONTRACT EMPLOYEES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert P. Patterson, Jr., U.S.D.J.

Defendants Northwest Airlines, Inc., Delta Airlines, Inc. (as successor to Northwest Airlines, Inc.), and the Northwest Airlines Pension Plan for Contract Employees (collectively, "Northwest") move pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1) to dismiss all claims against them in the Complaint filed by Plaintiff Marta J. Mitchell-White on March 25, 2010. Plaintiff Marta Mitchell-White cross-moves for summary judgment in her favor.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born in 1941 and is currently 69 years old. (Pl.'s Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Pl.'s 56.1 Statement") at ¶ 12.)*fn1 She was hired by Northwest Airlines in March 1967 and worked as a Northwest reservationist until 1983, and then worked as a customer service agent at the Northwest ticket counter at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, until 2003. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 13.) During her employment at Northwest and after her retirement, Plaintiff was a participant in the Northwest Pension Plan for Contract Employees (the "Contract Plan"). (Id. at ¶ 14.)

The Contract Plan was established in 1970 to provide pension benefits to Northwest's union-represented employees. (Id. at ¶ 1.) The Contract Plan in effect at the time of Plaintiff's initial employment at Northwest reflected a collectively bargained agreement between Northwest Airlines and The Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks (the "Union"). (Affidavit of Terri Keimig, Ex. D.) The Contract Plan has been amended, from time to time, as a result of agreements reached between the airline and the Union. (See Affidavit of Terri Keimig, Exs. B, C, D.)

The Contract Plan provides that Northwest, and Delta as its successor, is responsible for "the general administration of the Plan," and "carrying out the provisions thereof." (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 3.) The Contract Plan offers four types of pension benefits, each with its own eligibility and benefit vesting requirements: (1) Normal Retirement Pension, (2) EarlyRetirement Pension, (3) Disability Retirement Pension and (4) Deferred Vested Pension. (Id. at ¶ 5.) Normal Retirement Pension is available to those participants who reach the "Normal Retirement Date," which is defined in the Contract Plan as "the date the Participant would attain age sixty-five (65) years or, if later, the date which would be the fifth (5th) annual anniversary of the date the Participant first became a Participant." (Id. at ¶ 6; Contract Plan, attached as Exhibit A to the Affidavit of Terri Keimig ("Keimig Aff.") at § 1.2.18.) Participants under the age of 65, or who are older than age 65 but who have not yet reached their Normal Retirement Date, may, under certain circumstances retire and receive an Early Retirement Pension, Disability Retirement Pension, or Deferred Vested Pension. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 7, Defs.' Local Rule 56.1 Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Defs.' 56.1 Statement") at ¶ 7; Keimig Aff., Ex. A at §§ 3.2.1, 3.3.1 and 3.4.1.) Under the Contract Plan, the monthly amount paid to a participant receiving an Early Retirement Pension, Disability Retirement Pension, or Deferred Vested Pension "payable after the Participant turns age sixty-five (65) years shall be reduced by the Workers' Compensation Benefits, if any, received by the Participant." (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 8; Keimig Aff., Ex. A at §§ 3.2.2, 3.3.2 and 3.4.2.) The Contract Plan Summary also states that "when you [i.e. the participant] attain age 65," benefits received under the Early Retirement Pension, Disability Retirement Pension or Deferred Vested Pension are "reduced by the amount of any Workers' Compensation Benefit payable to you." (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 10; Contract Plan Summary, attached as Exhibit 1 to the Affidavit of Robert J. Bach ("Bach Aff."), at 15, 17 and 19.) The Summary also explains that Worker's Compensation "[b]enefits payable to you [i.e. the participant] before you are age 65 are disregarded." (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 11; Bach Aff., Ex. 1 at 9.)

On November 30, 2003, Plaintiff was forced to stop working due to work-related injuries. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 15.) In May 2004, Plaintiff applied for and began receiving Social Security Disability benefits. (Id. at ¶ 16.) In or about summer 2005, Plaintiff applied to the New York State Workers' Compensation Board for Workers' Compensation benefits. (Id. at ¶ 19.) On June 2, 2005, Plaintiff contacted Northwest's Retirement Department to inquire what, if any, effect her receipt of Workers' Compensation benefits would have on the pension payments she would receive upon retirement. (Defs.' Rule 56.1 Statement at ¶ 40.) On June 3, 2005, Pam Ruzicka of the Retirement Department informed Plaintiff by phone that her retirement benefits under the Contract Plan would be offset once she attained age 65 by the amount of any Workers' Compensation benefits she received at that time due to loss of wages. (Id. at ¶ 41.) On June 6, 2005, Jody Quinnell of the Retirement Department informed Plaintiff by letter, "Pension benefits payable at age 65 may be reduced to account for any Workers' Compensation benefits (if applicable) paid to you." (Id. at ¶ 42.) In July 2005, Ms. Mitchell-White elected to begin receiving an Early Retirement Pension under the Contract plan, and on July 31, 2005, she began receiving payments of $1,685.64 per month. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 17-18.) On or about October 14, 2005, the Worker's Compensation Board awarded Plaintiff $380.00 per week in Workers' Compensation benefits, and she began receiving these payments concurrently with her Early Retirement Pension benefits. (Id. at ¶ 20.) On or around December 22, 2005, Christine A. Wolff of the Retirement Department again advised Plaintiff that her retirement benefits would be subject to offset by the amount of Workers' Compensation benefits she received due to loss of wages once she attained age 65. (Defs.' 56.1 Statement at ¶ 44.)

Ms. Mitchell-White turned 65 on February 19, 2006. (Id. at ¶ 21.) For about two-anda-half years following Plaintiff's 65th birthday, she received both full monthly pension benefits and Workers' Compensation benefits simultaneously. (Id. at ¶ 22.)

On or about June 18, 2008, Ms. Mitchell-White received a letter from the Contract Plan, stating that the amount of her Workers' Compensation benefits should have been offset from her pension benefits once she turned 65. (Id. at ¶ 23; June 18, 2008 letter from Carol A. Johnson to Marta Mitchell-White, attached as Exhibit 1 to the Affidavit of Marta Mitchell-White ("Johnson Letter".) This letter stated that because the Plan Administrator had failed to offset her benefits upon and after her 65th birthday, Ms. Mitchell-White had been overpaid $39,262.32, and that going forward, her monthly pension would be offset by the amount of her Worker's Compensation Benefits. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶¶ 24-25; Johnson Letter.) To calculate the offset, the Plan Administrator subtracted Plaintiff's monthly Workers' Compensation benefit ($1,646.66) from the monthly pension benefit paid to her by the Contract Plan ($1,685.64) and arrived at a monthly pension benefit of $38.98. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 26; Johnson Letter.) Plaintiff continued to receive her monthly Workers' Compensation benefit of $1,646.66. Because the monthly pension benefit, upon applying the Offset, was less than the Contract Plan's "protected minimum benefit," the Plan Administrator determined that Plaintiff would receive a "protected minimum benefit" of $231.48 per month. (Pl.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 27.) The Plan also reduced the protected minimum pension benefit payment by $57.97 in order to recoup the overpayment of $39,262.32, resulting in a monthly pension payment of $173.61. (Id. at ¶¶ 28, 29.) This deduction results in the overpayment being fully repaid by Plaintiff in 2065, when Plaintiff will be 124. (Id. at ¶¶ 30-31.)

On April 8, 2009, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination against Northwest and the Contract Plan with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC"), alleging that Northwest violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") by reducing pension benefits to offset Workers' Compensation benefits upon a Plan Participant reaching age 65. (Id. at ¶ 37; Def.'s 56.1 Statement at ¶ 37.)*fn2 While this Charge was pending, Delta became the successor to Northwest. (Id. at ¶ 38.) On or about January 7, 2010, the EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue for violations of the ADEA. (Id. at ¶ 39.)

On March 25, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this court alleging that the Contract Plan's provision for offsetting pension benefits by the amount of Workers' Compensation benefits upon a Plan Participant reaching age 65 violates the ADEA and is discriminatory. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on June 4, 2010. Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to Defendants' motion, as well as a cross-motion for summary judgment on June 18, 2010. On August 4, 2010, Defendants' filed a reply in support of their motion to dismiss and in opposition to Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. Oral argument was held on February 8, 2011.

For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion to dismiss is granted, and Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment is denied.

DISCUSSION

Defendants move to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) on the grounds that the Amended Complaint fails to state a claim under the ADEA. They contend that because the Workers' Compensation offset (the "Offset") is triggered by a Contract Plan Participant's eligibility for a Normal Retirement Pension at age 65, and not age 65 itself, the Offset does not violate the ADEA.*fn3 (Defs.' Mem. in Opp. at 8-14.) In response, Plaintiff contends that the Defendants violated ADEA ยง4(a) by offsetting her pension benefit in the amount of her Workers' Compensation benefit once she reached age 65. (Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. at 10-17.) Plaintiff ...


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