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Johann Danecker and J and A Heritage Realty Corp v. the Board of Trustees of the Service Employees 32bj North Pension Fund

August 2, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul A. Engelmayer, District Judge:


In this action, Plaintiffs Johann Danecker ("Danecker") and J and A Heritage Realty Corp. ("J&A") sue The Board of Trustees of the Service Employees 32BJ North Pension Fund (the "Fund"), alleging violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), specifically 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), in connection with the Fund's denial of pension benefits to Danecker. A building superintendent, Danecker retired from J&A in September 2001 after working for approximately 18 years as a member of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32E, AFL-CIO ("Local 32E"). He claims that pension contributions were paid on his behalf to the Fund, but that, after he had been paid a pension for 14 months, the Fund suspended his benefits, and notified him that he was not entitled to that pension. Plaintiffs seek, inter alia, an order that the Fund pay out the pension or, alternatively, pay damages equating to the sums contributed to the Fund on Danecker's behalf. The Fund now moves to dismiss all counts. For the following reasons, defendant's motion is granted in its entirety.

I.Factual Background*fn1

Between 1983 and 2001, Danecker worked as a building superintendent at a Bronx property located at 2954 East 196th Street. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 9. During that period, he worked for three realty companies: Vanpel Realty Corp. (1983--1986); Grand Management Co. (1986-- 1988); and J&A (1988 until his retirement on September 30, 2001). Id. ¶ 9. At all times, Danecker was a member in good standing of Local 32E. Id. Pension contributions during this period were forwarded on Danecker's behalf to the Fund. Id. ¶ 10.

In 2001, Danecker applied for pension benefits from the Fund. He was awarded a pension of $589 per month, with a survivor's benefit to his wife of $295 per month, both based on his 18 years of service. Id. ¶ 11. For 14 months after his retirement, Danecker received monthly pension payments, totaling $8,246. Id. ¶ 12.

On October 23, 2002, the Fund suspended Danecker's monthly pension payments, stating that Danecker was not entitled to them. As alleged by Danecker, the Fund's explanation was that J&A, his employer during his last 13 years of work, had ceased in 1991 to be a signatory to a collective bargaining agreement with Local 32E, and that the Fund was prohibited from accepting pension contributions other than those made pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. Id. The Fund represented to Danecker that, in 1991, J&A had ceased to pay dues to the Bronx Realty Advisory Board (the "BRAB"), the association that represented owners, managers, agents, and/or operators of apartment houses and office buildings which employed members of Local 32E. Id. ¶ 13. The BRAB had been a signatory to successive collective bargaining agreements with the union. Id.

Danecker alleges that he is entitled to benefits because J&A made pension contributions on his behalf to BRAB beginning on or about July 1, 1988, and that, even after J&A ceased paying association dues to BRAB in 1991, it continued to pay contributions to the Fund on his behalf, and to remit union dues to Local 32E on his behalf, until he retired. Id. ¶ 14. Danecker points to letters between Local 32E, BRAB, and J&A that, he alleges, corroborate this arrangement. Id. ¶¶ 15--23. Danecker also claims that Local 32E President Robert Chartier personally promised him that, "as long as he continued to pay the union dues and [J&A] continued to forward the Pension Fund contributions," he "would receive a pension upon retirement." Id. ¶ 19.

On October 23, 2002, Danecker received the letter terminating his benefits. Id. ¶ 23. He and J&A responded, seeking reinstatement of his benefits. Id. ¶24. However, on February 12, 2003, the Fund wrote Danecker again, reiterating its conclusion. The Fund stated that Danecker had not submitted "any information regarding whether [J&A] was a signatory to any agreement requiring contributions to be made on your behalf for any year subsequent to 1991." Danecker Aff. Ex. 2. The Fund's February 12, 2003 letter expressly notified Danecker of his "right to appeal this determination to the Board of Trustees as detailed . . . [in] your summary plan description (a copy is enclosed for your review)." Id.

On February 26, 2003, Danecker appealed to the Fund's Board. Compl. ¶ 25. On June 13, 2003, the Board-although acknowledging that J&A had contributed to the Fund until Danecker's retirement-denied Danecker's appeal. It explained that there was no "valid collective bargaining agreements or any other type of agreement that required contributions to the Fund." Danecker Aff. Ex. 4. The Fund also asked Danecker to return the $8,246 he had received in monthly pension payments before his benefits were cancelled. This was because, once his post-1991 service was removed from consideration, he had not met the 10-year service period required for the benefits to vest. Id.

On February 28, 2012, more than eight years after his administrative appeal was denied, Danecker, along with J&A, brought this lawsuit under ERISA, specifically 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Plaintiffs seek reinstatement of Danecker's monthly benefits or, alternatively, an order that the Fund return to them all contributions made to the Fund on Danecker's behalf. Plaintiffs also seek attorneys' fees. On April 27, 2012, the Fund moved to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

II.Legal Standard

To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), plaintiffs must plead sufficient factual allegations "to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Where a plaintiff has not "nudged [his or her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [the] complaint must be dismissed." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint, and "draw[ ] all inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Allaire Corp. v. Okumus, 433 F.3d 248, 249--50 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). On the other hand, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (noting that ...

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