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Caban v. Employees Sec. Fund of the Elec. Prods. Indus. Pension Plan

United States District Court, E.D. New York

April 28, 2014

WILLIAM CABAN, Plaintiff,
v.
EMPLOYEES SECURITY FUND OF THE ELECTRICAL PRODUCTS INDUSTRIES PENSION PLAN and THE PENSION TRUST FUND OF THE PENSION, HOSPITALIZATION AND BENEFIT PLAN OF THE ELECTRICAL INDUSTRY, Defendants

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For William Caban, Plaintiff: Noah Aaron Kinigstein, Noah Kinigstein, New York, NY.

For Employee Security Fund of the Electrical Products Industries Pension Plan, Defendant: Peter D. DeChiara, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cohen, Weiss and Simon, New York, NY; Peter Herman, Cohen, Weiss and Simon LLP, New York, NY.

For Pension Trust Fund of the Pension Hospitalization and Benefit Plan of the Electrical Industry, Defendant: Peter D. DeChiara, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cohen, Weiss and Simon, New York, NY; Peter Herman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cohen, Weiss and Simon LLP, New York, NY.

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Memorandum & Order

STEVEN M. GOLD, United States Magistrate Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff William Caban worked as an electrician for several years before he sustained a disabling injury in 2005. Caban has been awarded a disability pension from a fund administered by the Joint Industry Board of the Electrical Industry. Caban brings this action pursuant to ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1132,

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claiming that he is entitled to a larger monthly pension than he was awarded and that the pension was payable at an earlier date than it commenced. The first amended complaint, the operative pleading, asserts two causes of action: one for recovery of plan benefits and a second for attorney's fees and costs. Docket Entry 12.

Defendants, Employees Security Fund of the Electrical Products Industries Pension Plan (" ESF" ) and the Pension Trust Fund of the Pension, Hospitalization and Benefit Plan of the Electrical Industry (" PTF" ), have moved for summary judgment and ask that the court uphold the Trustees' decision that Caban is entitled to a monthly disability pension benefit of $490.65 under the PTF Plan, payable beginning September 2010. Docket Entry 38; see Defs. Mem., Docket Entry 40, at 1. Caban has cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that his monthly benefit should be $2000 (or, alternately, at least $1152) payable as of the date of his injury in 2005. Pl. Mem., Docket Entry 43, at 35 et seq., 55.

For the reasons stated below, defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted with respect to Caban's disability pension start date and defendants' contention that Caban's pension amount should be calculated based upon his employment as an " M" journeyperson. Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment is denied. However, for the reasons discussed below, plaintiff may attempt to demonstrate in an additional submission that there is a genuine question of material fact with respect to the number of pension credits Caban earned during his employment as an electrician and when he earned them.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The following facts are drawn primarily from the parties' statements of material facts submitted pursuant to Local Civil Rule 56.1, and are essentially undisputed unless otherwise noted. See Defs. R. 56.1, Docket Entry 38-1; Pl. R. 56.1, Docket Entry 43-4.

Plaintiff Caban is a trained electrical worker and member of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (" Local 3" ). Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 6-7. Throughout his tenure, Local 3 referred Caban to jobs of varying duration and pay in the manufacturing division. Id. ¶ ¶ 7, 10. Many of Caban's employers contributed to one of two different pension plans: the ESF Plan or the PTF Plan. Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 1-2, 4. These plans are funded by employer contributions pursuant to collective bargaining agreements between employers in the electrical industry and Local 3. Defs. Mem. at 2; Declaration of Mark Chanzis (" Chanzis Decl." ), Docket Entry 39, ¶ 2. The Joint Industry Board of the Electrical Industry (" Joint Board" ) administers both plans, though each plan has different contributing employers and is governed by different collective bargaining agreements. Id. ¶ 3. The PTF Plan, under which Caban was ultimately awarded a disability pension, grants the Trustees " full discretionary authority to determine the eligibility for benefits and to construe the Plan's terms and provisions." Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 14; Chanzis Decl. ¶ 18; Defs. Ex. F at 40, Docket Entry 39-1 at 61 of 143.

On June 24, 2005, while working for QNCC Electric Inc., Caban fell approximately forty feet from a ladder and sustained serious injuries. Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 15-17. As a result of these injuries, Caban applied for and was awarded Social Security disability benefits. Id. ¶ ¶ 19, 32-33. Caban also sought and obtained approximately $400 per week ($1733.33 per month) in workers' compensation benefits, which he received from about the date of

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his accident through August 2010. Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 28; Pl. Ex. C; Defs. Ex. E at 1. In addition, Caban brought a personal injury lawsuit. That lawsuit was settled in August 2010. A portion of the settlement proceeds -- $75,000 -- was paid to the workers' compensation insurance carrier to satisfy its lien under New York Workers' Compensation Law Section 29, and Caban's workers' compensation benefits were terminated at that time. Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 29-30.

Caban also applied for the disability pension at issue in this lawsuit. Before submitting a formal application, Caban wrote a letter to the Joint Board on March 28, 2006 seeking information about his employment history. Pl. Ex. E, Docket Entry 43-6; Affidavit of William Caban (" Caban Decl." ), Docket Entry 43-1, ¶ 17. The administrator for the Joint Board, Marsha Collock, replied on April 3, listing plaintiff's employers and approximate dates of employment from 2003 through 2005 and adding, " The Joint Industry Board does not maintain compensation or disability records. These records must be obtained from the Electrical Employees Self Insurance Safety Plan located on the 2nd floor at the above referenced address." Pl. Ex. F; Caban Decl. ¶ 18. Ms. Collock followed up on May 26, 2006 and informed Caban, " [r]ecords at this office indicate that you have been employed by contributing employers" for sixteen years and one month. Pl. Ex. G; Caban Decl. ¶ ¶ 22-23.

By May 2007, Caban had hired an attorney to assist him with applying for a disability pension. Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 35, 37. Caban's counsel received a letter from Ms. Collock dated May 24, 2007, indicating as follows:

Since the Joint Industry Board merely refers members of Local Union No. 3 IBEW for employment, we cannot supply W-2 forms, etc. However, we are listing below Mr. Caban's employers and approximate employment dates . . . . Information pertaining to wages, attendance, payroll records and employment information must be obtained from the participant's employer.

Pl. Ex. H. In this letter, Collock listed employers and dates employed extending back to 1998. According to Caban, however, the letter " failed to include all the employers [plaintiff] worked for over [his] 20 plus years as an electrical worker and a member of Local 3 and as a participant in the pension plans." Caban Decl. ¶ 27.

By letter dated June 5, 2007, Caban explicitly applied for a disability pension. Pl. Ex. I; Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 42-3; see also Defs. Mem. at 4. Three business days later, Collock replied that Caban's application had been denied because he had only sixteen pension credits and not the twenty credits required by the ESF Plan. Pl. Ex. K; Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 44-45, 49. Collock's letter advised Caban that he could appeal the Joint Board's decision to the ESF Board of Trustees. Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ 49.

Caban appealed to the Board of Trustees by submitting a letter dated June 27, 2007. Pl. Ex. M. On August 20, 2009, Mark Chanzis, Director of Administration for the Joint Board, notified Caban that his appeal seeking a disability pension under the ESF Plan was denied on the grounds that the Plan required at least twenty pension credits for eligibility and that Caban had only ten credits under the ESF Plan. Pl. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 64-65; see Defs. Mem. at 3; Chanzis Decl. ¶ ¶ 1, 7. In 2009, Chanzis also believed Caban was not eligible for a PTF pension because he had not earned ten consecutive credits with a PTF contributing employer. Chanzis Decl. ¶ 8.

Caban filed his complaint commencing this action on January 29, 2010. Docket Entry 1 (" Compl." ). On March 8, 2010, the Joint Board reexamined Caban's employment

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records and determined that Caban's ten pension credits under the ESF Plan and six pension credits under the PTF Plan rendered him eligible for a disability pension under the PTF Plan. Def. Ex. A, Docket Entry 39-1; Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 5; Chanzis Decl. ¶ 5; Defs. Mem. at 4. The Joint Board reached this decision by applying the terms of a Reciprocal Agreement between the ESF and PTF Plans that combines service under both for vesting purposes, with each pension credit valued according to the rules of the plan under which the credit was earned. Chanzis Decl. ¶ ¶ 6, 11; Defs. Ex. B. Upon application of the Reciprocal Agreement, the Board concluded that, while Caban was ineligible for an ESF pension, he was eligible for a disability pension under the PTF Plan. Defs. Mem. at 3-4.

The PTF Plan notified Caban on February 29, 2012 that he was eligible for a disability pension in the amount of $563.85 starting July 1, 2007 (the first of the month following the Joint Board's receipt of his application). Defs. Ex. C; Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 10, 26; PTF Plan § 5.15(a).[1] The notification also advised Caban, however, that his disability pension would be offset by the amount of his workers' compensation benefit and that, because Caban had received a monthly workers' compensation benefit greater than the amount of his pension benefit through August 2010, his pension would not be payable until September 2010. Defs. Ex. C; Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 27; PTF Plan § 4.04. The Joint Board later discovered a clerical error that it determined reduced Caban's monthly pension benefit to $490.65. Chanzis Decl. ¶ ¶ 13, 28.

Defendants calculated plaintiff's pension amount based upon Caban's status as an " M" journeyperson, earning $24.80 per hour. Chanzis Decl. ¶ 22; Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ ¶ 18-19. Caban contends that he had from time to time worked at the rate of an " A" journeyperson and earned an accordingly higher salary. Caban Decl. ¶ 58; Pl. Response to Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 18; Pl. Ex. GG at 11-13.

Defendants outline their calculations in their motion papers. Defs. Ex. G. Defendants also explain that some of Caban's pension credits are valued under the PTF Plan and some under the ESF Plan, and that the computation of his pension is affected by his breaks in service. Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 22. Caban challenges the amount of his pension benefit, arguing that defendants' calculations were never explained to him as required by ERISA and that he has worked for more employers than the Joint Board has considered. Pl. Response to Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 17.

On May 24, 2012, Caban's counsel appealed to the PTF Board of Trustees, challenging both the monthly amount of Caban's pension and its September 2010 commencement date. Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 12; Chanzis Decl. ¶ 14. The Joint Board denied Caban's appeal on July 24, 2012. Defs. Ex. E; Chanzis Decl. ¶ 16; Defs. R. 56.1 ¶ 13.

DISCUSSION

I. Summary Judgment Standard


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