United States District Court, S.D. New York
SANDRA D. THOMPSON, Plaintiff,
DEUTSCHE BANK TRUST CORPORATION et al., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JESSE M. FURMAN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Sandra D. Thompson, proceeding pro se, sues Deutsche Bank Trust Corporation ("Deutsche Bank"), Seth Waugh, Shari Goldfarb, and Richard O'Connell (together, "Defendants") to recover alleged unpaid pension funds. Plaintiff's cause of action is best characterized as arising under Section 502(a)(1)(b) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a), which allows a participant to bring a claim to "recover benefits due to [her] under the terms of [her] plan." Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants move to dismiss the complaint. (Docket No. 14). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED.
The following facts, taken from the Second Amended Complaint ("SAC") (Docket No. 20), are assumed to be true for purposes of this motion. See, e.g., Hogan v. Fischer, 738 F.3d 509, 512 (2d Cir. 2013). Plaintiff is a former Banker's Trust employee. (SAC 2). In the course of her employment, which began on February 5, 1970, she enrolled in three different employee pension plans: the Banker's Trust Pension Plan ("Pension Plan"), the Savings Incentive Plan/Tax Option Program ("SIP"), and the Deductible Employee Contributions Retirement Account ("DECRA"). ( Id. ). On January 19, 1984, she left her employment at Banker's Trust after nearly fourteen years. ( Id. ). Deutsche Bank acquired Banker's Trust in 1999; in due course, the Pension Plan was merged into Deutsche Bank Holdings Corp. Cash Account Pension Plan ("Cash Account Pension Plan") and SIP was merged into the Deutsche Bank Matched Savings Plan. (Defs.' Mem. Law Supp. Mot. To Dismiss ("Defs.' Mem. Law") (Docket No. 15) 1).
From the Cash Account Pension Plan, Plaintiff expected to receive, and until 2008 did receive, monthly benefit payments of $469.01. (SAC 2, 5; id., Ex. 4). As of January 1, 2008, however, Deutsche Bank reduced the monthly payment to $17.01. ( Id. 5). Plaintiff filed a claim to adjust the monthly rate and to recover the lost payments, which Deutsche Bank denied; she appealed the denial on December 31, 2011. ( Id., Ex. 3 at 1). In a letter dated March 7, 2012, Deutsche Bank explained that the denial of her claim was based on Section 9.3(e) of the Pension Plan, or the Age 62 Level Income Option. ( Id. ). Relying on that provision, Deutsche Bank explained that Plaintiff had "receive[d] an enhanced benefit prior to age 62" and that "[t]he reduced monthly benefit bec[ame] effective as of the first day of the month following [her sixty-second] birthday....". ( Id. ). When combined with her Social Security pension, the $17.01 would result in a total of $469.01 each month. ( Id., Ex. 4; see Defs.' Mem. Law 6).
With respect to the SIP, Plaintiff had expected to receive matched contributions of two dollars for every one dollar she saved, up to a maximum of six percent of her yearly salary. (SAC 2-3). When she left Bankers Trust in 1984, she received from the SIP funds attributable to her own participating contributions - but not, Plaintiff claims, the employer's matching contributions for the prior two years, 1982 and 1983. Plaintiff calculates that those contributions totaled $3, 347.00. ( Id. 8). Deutsche Bank advised Plaintiff that, after a "diligent review" of its archives, it did not find any record of her SIP account. ( Id., Ex. 9). Plaintiff reiterated her concerns about the matching SIP funds with Deutsche Bank repeatedly throughout 2011 and 2012. ( Id., Ex. 10). The plan administrator denied her claim, but she has not yet appealed. (Goldfarb Decl. (Docket No. 16), Ex. G; see Defs.' Mem. Law 8).
On March 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed the instant action. She brings three claims under ERISA. First, she seeks the value of the reduction in her Cash Account Pension Plan from $469.01 to $17.01 since 2008. (SAC 5). Second, she seeks the value of the SIP matched funds, plus interest, for the final two years of her employment with Banker's Trust. ( Id. 6). Third, alleging that Defendants' treatment of her claims caused "stress, financial trauma, and health issues, " including "hair loss, lack of sleep, and emotional trauma, " Plaintiff seeks to recover emotional damages. ( Id. 9). Defendants moved to dismiss those claims as pleaded in her Amended Complaint. ( See Am. Compl. (Docket No. 3)). Plaintiff subsequently filed a Second Amended Complaint, containing nearly identical claims, as well as a response to Defendants' motion to dismiss. ( See SAC; Pl.'s Mem. Law; see also Defs.' Reply Mem. Law Supp. Mot. To Dismiss ("Defs.' Reply Mem. Law") (Docket No. 24) 1 n.1 (identifying the minimal differences between the two complaints)). Thereafter, Defendants indicated that they relied upon their previously filed motion to dismiss and filed a reply memorandum in response to Plaintiff's opposition. (Defs.' Letter of June 20, 2013 (Docket No. 22); Defs.' Reply Mem. Law).
A. Legal Standards
A motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the allegations in the complaint. See ATSI Commnc'ns, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007). To survive the motion, the complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. 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). More specifically, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to show "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. If the 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.
Plaintiff here is proceeding pro se. Accordingly, her submission must be held "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009) (stating that a court must "construe a pro se complaint liberally"). Nevertheless, pro se plaintiffs are not excused from the normal rules of pleading, and "dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is proper if the complaint lacks an allegation regarding an element necessary to obtain relief." Geldzahler v. N.Y. Med. Coll., 663 F.Supp.2d 379, 387 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). In other words, the "duty to liberally construe a plaintiff's complaint [is not] the equivalent of a duty to re-write it." Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).
B. Pension Payments from the Cash Account Pension Plan
Plaintiff, in her first claim, seeks to recoup the reductions in her monthly payments from the Cash Account Pension Plan since 2008. When a pension plan grants discretion to the plan administrator to consider claims, a court reviews the administrator's decisions for abuse of discretion. See Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989) (holding that "a denial of benefits... is to be reviewed under a de novo standard unless the benefit plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan"); Duncan v. Cigna Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 507 F.Appx. 61, 62 (2d Cir. 2013) (summary order) ("[W]e review the administrator's interpretation of benefits for abuse of discretion."). Under that deferential standard, a court "may overturn a decision to deny benefits only if it was without reason, unsupported by substantial evidence or erroneous as a matter of law." Pagan v. NYNEX Pension Plan, 52 F.3d 438, 442 (2d Cir. 1995).
Here, the Cash Account Pension Plan gives discretion to the plan administrator (Goldfarb Decl., Ex. E at 15; see also Defs.' Mem. Law 10),  and there is no basis to overturn the administrator's decision to deny Plaintiff's claim. Indeed, the administrator's decision is supported by evidence in the record and is not in error. The terms of the Cash Account Pension Plan outline the Social Security Leveling option. Section 9.3(e) specifies that the member receives "a reduced pension... so that [the] pension... will be approximately equal to the sum of his pension and his old-age Social Security benefit after such earliest age as estimated at his Benefit Starting Date." (Goldfarb Decl., Ex. A at 36). The March 7, 2012 letter from the plan administrator explains that, under the terms of the Cash Account Pension Plan, "[t]he reduced monthly benefit bec[ame] effective as of the first day of the month following [Plaintiff's sixty-second] birthday" and that, combined with the Social Security pension, the $17.01 would result in a total of $469.01 each month. (SAC, Ex. 3 at 1). That ...