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Hamilton v. Gen. Motors Hourly-Rate Employee's Pension Plan

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 22, 2015

GARY M. HAMILTON, Plaintiff,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS HOURLY-RATE EMPLOYEE'S PENSION PLAN and GENERAL MOTORS, LLC, Defendants

Page 203

GARY M. HAMILTON, Plaintiff, Pro se, Massena, New York.

For Defendants: GINGER D. SCHRÖ DER, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, SCHRÖ DER, JOSEPH & ASSOCIATES, LLP, Buffalo, New York.

Page 204

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

Mae A. D'Agostino, United States District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Pro se plaintiff, Gary Hamilton, commenced this action on June 26, 2014, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and equitable estoppel under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (" ERISA" ). See Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff later clarified that the true nature of his claim is one for improper denial of pension benefits. See Dkt. No. 18 at ¶ ¶ 8-9. Plaintiff originally filed his complaint against General Motors Corporation Hourly-Rate Employee's Pension Plan (the " Plan" ) and its Plan Administrator, Kevin Cobb. See Dkt. No. 1. On July 21, 2014, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed Defendant Kevin Cobb with prejudice. See Dkt. No. 5. On July 24, 2014, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint naming the Plan and General Motors, LLC (" GM" ) as Defendants. See Dkt. No. 10. On November 17, 2014, the parties submitted a Joint Statement of Stipulated Facts; the record is undisputed. See Dkt. No. 21. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, both parties filed cross motions for summary judgment based on the administrative record. See Dkt. Nos. 24 & 25. Currently before the Court are the parties' motions for summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

A. The parties' dispute

The Plan in dispute is a defined benefit plan governed by the ERISA and, as Plan Administrator, GM has full authority to administer the Plan. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ ¶ 3-4. The Plan offers additional credited service for employees who work at designated foundry locations and meet other requirements. See id. at ¶ 5. As a seniority employee, Plaintiff is entitled to participate in the Plan. See Dkt. No. 10 at ¶ 6.

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In 1976, Plaintiff began working at GM as an hourly union employee. See id. From 1976 until his transfer in 2009, Plaintiff worked for GM at its Linden and Massena plant locations. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 6. In March of 2009, Plaintiff transferred from Massena Powertrain (" Massena" ) to Saginaw Metal Casting Operation Plant (" Saginaw" ). See id. at ¶ 7. The transfer occurred pursuant to a separate collective bargaining agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding (" MOU" ), between GM and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW (" the Union" ). See Dkt. No. 23 at 14-18; Dkt. No. 10 at ¶ 12. The parties' stated intent under the MOU was " to ensure that employees who desired employment at Saginaw would receive an offer of employment and to minimize union grievances as a result of the changing job assignments during the transition period." See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 9. The MOU further stated that " [e]mployees transferred pursuant to this [MOU] shall bring with them their entire personnel record as though their full period of service had been at [Saginaw]." See id. at ¶ 10.

In 2010, prior to his retirement, Plaintiff applied for additional credited service under the Plan. See Dkt. No. 23 at 2. Approximately one week later, Defendants responded, " [w]ith respect to the submission of your Request . . . it has been determined that as of 09/30/2010 your credited service remains unchanged at 34.6 years." See id. at 3. On October 21, 2010, Plaintiff sent Defendants a copy of the MOU and argued that, according to the MOU, all of his credited service should be treated as though he spent the entirety of his career at Saginaw, which is a designated foundry location. See id. at 4. On November 23, 2010, Defendants sent Plaintiff a letter reiterating that his credited service remained unchanged because his foundry service began on 03/16/2009, and " [p]er Article III, Section 5 and Appendix B of the Plan, Massena is not a plant that is specified for foundry job classifications." See id. at 5. The parties do not dispute the fact that the Linden and Massena Plants are classified as non-foundry service locations, and Saginaw is considered a foundry service location. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ ¶ 6-7.

After working at Saginaw for four years, Plaintiff retired on October 1, 2013. See id. at P 8; Dkt. No. 10 at ¶ 14. Pursuant to the Plan, Plaintiff began receiving a monthly pension benefit of $2,032.28; this figure was calculated by multiplying the Class C rate of $54.05 by 37.6 credited service years. See Dkt. No. 10 at ¶ 14. On July 31, 2013, Plaintiff executed a Pension Election Authorization, which confirmed his pension calculations to be correct. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 12; Dkt. No. 23 at 6. Shortly after retirement, Plaintiff requested review of his claim by the Department of Labor (" DOL" ). See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 13; Dkt. No. 23 at 12. The DOL received Plaintiff's request on August 16, 2013, and forwarded it to Defendants on September 5, 2013. See id. On September 9, 2013, Defendants sent a letter to Plaintiff affirming his current credited service and restating that, under Article III, Section 5 and Appendix B of the Plan, Massena is not a plant specified for foundry job classifications. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 14; Dkt. No. 23 at 22. On October 10, 2013, Plaintiff again applied for 7.5 additional credited service years for his service at Saginaw; this letter was Plaintiff's final administrative appeal. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 15; Dkt. No. 23 at 24. By letter dated November 4, 2013, Defendants denied Plaintiff's request for additional credited service. See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 16; Dkt. No. 23 at 34.

In a letter written to Kristen Shaw at the DOL, Defendants explained that the

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MOU relied upon by Plaintiff was not intended to amend the Plan:

[The MOU] language is specific to employment seniority and the employment record; there is nothing in this or other MOU language that suggests that [Plaintiff] would be provided with additional foundry service for time . . . worked at a non-foundry location. The Plan provisions are quite clear as to the applicability of foundry service. [Plaintiff] does not meet the requirements of the Plan to have additional foundry service added to his record. His credited service of 37.6 years is correct . . .

See Dkt. No. 21 at ¶ 17. Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff commenced this action on July 21, 2014. See id. at ¶ 15; see also Dkt. No. 1.

B. Relevant Provisions of the Plan

Article VI, Section 1 of the Plan addresses administration of the Plan: " General Motors is the Plan Administrator and has the full authority to construe, interpret and administer the plan. . . . [General Motors] shall be responsible . . . for carrying out the provisions thereof." See Dkt. No. 23 at 50.

Article III, Section 5 of the Plan deals with additional credited service for employment at designated foundry locations:

Section 5: Foundry Service
An employee with seniority . . . who at retirement age has over 10 years of credited service which such employee accrued while employed on certain foundry job classifications as set forth in Appendix B, shall receive additional credited service related thereto. Total credited service for any such employee who retires with benefits payable commencing on or after October 1, 1975 shall be the sum of (i) credited service otherwise credited to the employee, and (ii) any such additional credited service which shall be credited to the employee in accordance with the following table:

Years of Credited Service

Additional ...


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