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New York State Teamsters Conference Pension and Retirement Fund v. C & S Wholesale Grocers, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 1, 2017

NEW YORK STATE TEAMSTERS CONFERENCE PENSION AND RETIREMENT FUND by its Trustees, Michael S. Scalzo, Sr., John Bulgaro, Daniel W. Schmidt, Tom J. Ventura, Bob Schaeffer, Brian Hammond, Mark May and Paul Markwitz, Plaintiff,
v.
C&S WHOLESALE GROCERS, INC., Defendant.

          GROOM LAW GROUP EDWARD J. MEEHAN, ESQ. MARK C. NIELSEN, ESQ. STEPHEN M. SAXON, ESQ. Attorneys for Plaintiff

          PARAVATI, KARL, GREEN, & DEBELLA, LLP VINCENT M. DEBELLA, ESQ. Attorneys for Plaintiff

          C&S WHOLESALE GROCERS, INC.ALAN KINTISCH, ESQ. Attorneys for Defendant

          HANCOCK ESTABROOK, LLPASHLEY D. HAYES, ESQ. JOHN G. POWERS, ESQ. Attorneys for Defendant

          JONES DAY EVAN MILLER, ESQ. JACOB M. ROTH, ESQ. SARA PIKOFSKY, ESQ. Attorneys for Defendant

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          SCULLIN, Senior Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Dkt. No. 23. Defendant filed this motion prior to Plaintiff amending its complaint as of right. After Plaintiff filed its amended complaint, the Court provided Defendant with the option to file a new motion to dismiss or to supplement its original motion. Defendant chose to supplement its original motion. Therefore, Defendant's motion, as supplemented, is directed at Plaintiff's amended complaint.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Penn Traffic Company ("Penn Traffic") was a Syracuse-based food retail and wholesale company that operated under the "P&C Foods, " "Bi-Lo Foods, " and "Quality Markets" trade names. See Dkt. No. 28, First Amended Complaint, at ¶ 16. Penn Traffic owned two warehouses located in Syracuse, New York, and DuBois, Pennsylvania. See Id. at ¶ 17. At the Syracuse warehouse, Penn Traffic employed approximately 450 members of Teamsters Local 317. See Id. at ¶ 19. Penn Traffic was a party to "various collective bargaining agreements with Teamsters Local 317." See Id. at ¶ 20. Relevant to this litigation, Penn Traffic was required to contribute to a pension fund on behalf of employees who worked at the Syracuse warehouse and whom Teamsters Local 317 represented. See Id. at ¶ 20.

         Plaintiff Pension Fund is managed by a Board of Trustees and regulated pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") and the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA"). See Id. at ¶ 9. Plaintiff Pension Fund is organized as a "multiemployer plan, " which means that Penn Traffic is one of several employers who contribute to Plaintiff Pension Fund. See Id. Penn Traffic's participation in Plaintiff Pension Fund exposed it to substantial withdrawal liability if it ceased making contributions. See Id. at ¶ 30.

         In May 2010, after filing for bankruptcy, Penn Traffic fired all 450 employees whom Teamsters Local 317 represented and permanently closed its Syracuse warehouse. See Id. at ¶ 73. Since the Teamsters Local 317 members were no longer employed, Penn Traffic was no longer making any contributions to Plaintiff Pension Fund. See Id. Thus, Penn Traffic triggered withdrawal liability pursuant to ERISA. See id.

         In April 2010, Plaintiff Pension Fund delivered a notice and demand for payment of the withdrawal liability in the amount of $63, 592, 689.25 to Penn Traffic. See Id. at ¶ 75. Penn Traffic did not contest the amount of withdrawal liability. See Id. at ¶ 80. As a result of Penn Traffic's bankruptcy proceedings, however, Plaintiff Pension Fund only received $5, 206, 088.34, leaving a balance of $58, 386, 600.91 in unpaid withdrawal liability. See Id. at ¶ 80. Plaintiff Pension Fund commenced this action in an attempt to recover the unpaid funds, not from Penn Traffic, which is not a party to this lawsuit, but from Defendant.

         Defendant is a national wholesale supply company. See Id. at ¶ 13. Around March 2008, Defendant began negotiations to acquire Penn Traffic's wholesale distribution division. See Id. at ¶ 29. One complication in Defendant's plan was that an outright purchase of Penn Traffic's Syracuse warehouse would trigger Penn Traffic's withdrawal liability, a result Defendant wanted to avoid. See Id. at ¶¶ 42-43. Therefore, Defendant attempted to structure the takeover to foreclose exposure to Penn Traffic's withdrawal liability - a strategy that Plaintiff Pension Fund deems an actionable scheme and Defendant labels "prudent business judgment." See id.

         In December 2008, Defendant entered into an asset purchase agreement and other agreements to assume control of specified assets and liabilities within Penn Traffic's wholesale distribution division. See Dkt. No. 28 at ¶ 51. "[Defendant] acquired, inter alia, Penn Traffic's wholesale distribution contracts, customers, equipment, files, records, goodwill, intellectual property, accounts receivable, and employees dedicated to Penn Traffic's wholesale distribution division who were not members of Teamsters Local 317." See Id. at ¶ 52; see also Dkt. No. 23-3, Miller Declaration Exhibit "A" at § 1.2(a)-(h) (listing acquired assets), § 4.21(c) (providing that Defendant would hire only those Penn Traffic employees not subject to collective bargaining agreements). However, Defendant did not acquire, among other things, Penn Traffic's retail business, facilities, leases and subleases, cash, and employee benefit plans. See Id. at § 1.3(a)-(e). Furthermore, Defendant specifically disclaimed any authority or power over any of Penn Traffic's employees who were associated with Teamsters Local 317. See Dkt. No. 23-4, Miller Declaration Exhibit "B" at § 10.

         These agreements created an "independent contractor" relationship between Penn Traffic and Defendant. See Id. Defendant shipped merchandise to Penn Traffic's warehouses, including the Syracuse warehouse; and Penn Traffic stored, handled, and ultimately distributed the merchandise to Defendant's customers. See Id. at § 1.2. Under the contract, Penn Traffic retained responsibility for "all employees, Facility and storage leases, material handling and transportation equipment, contracts and all other liabilities associated with the Facilities and any other storage." See id.

         According to Plaintiff, operations at the Syracuse warehouse "were materially identical to what they would have been had [Defendant] formally acquired the entirety of Penn Traffic's wholesale distribution." See Dkt. No. 28 at ¶ 64. The only difference was that Penn Traffic continued to operate independently and remained the employer of record for all 450 Teamsters Local 317 employees. See id.

         Finally, Plaintiff alleges, and Defendant does not dispute, that Defendant's plan was to acquire Penn Traffic's wholesale business without becoming responsible for Penn Traffic's withdrawal liability. See Dkt. No. 42 at 4. Plaintiff claims that Defendant "modified the deal structure for no reason other than shirking pension obligations to the Syracuse employees and the Pension Fund." See id.; see also Dkt. No. 28 at ¶¶ 24-28.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of review

         Courts use a two-step process when addressing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. "First, they isolate the moving party's legal conclusions from its factual allegations." Hyman v. Cornell Univ., 834 F.Supp.2d 77, 81 (N.D.N.Y. 2011). Second, they accept factual allegations as true and "determine whether [those allegations] plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). A pleading must contain more than a "blanket assertion[] of entitlement to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 n.3 (2007). Thus, to withstand a motion to dismiss, a pleading must be "'plausible on its face'" such that it contains "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quotation and other citation omitted).[1]

         B. Plaintiff's first amended complaint

         Plaintiff asserts four claims against Defendant. In its first cause of action, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant is responsible for Penn Traffic's withdrawal liability as the successor to Penn Traffic. See Dkt. No. 28 at ¶¶ 84-88. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendant was aware of Penn Traffic's withdrawal liability and understood the approximate amount of liability to expect. See Id. at ¶¶ 84-86. Furthermore, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant maintained the same address, telephone number and facility as Penn Traffic, serviced the same customers as Penn Traffic, and used the same personnel as Penn Traffic. See Id. at ¶ 87. Therefore, according to Plaintiff, under federal common law, Defendant is jointly and severally liable for the outstanding withdrawal liability. See Id. at ¶ 88.

         In its second cause of action, Plaintiff alleges that "a principal purpose of the Transaction undertaken by [Defendant] and Penn Traffic was to evade or avoid withdrawal liability, in violation of ERISA." See Id. at ¶ 91. Thus, according to Plaintiff, under ERISA, Defendant is liable for the balance of the withdrawal liability together with interest, costs, attorney's fees and penalties. See Id. at ¶ 92.

         In its third cause of action, Plaintiff contends that Defendant was an employer under ERISA in "common control" with Penn Traffic and is thus jointly and severally liable for withdrawal liability. See Id. at ¶ 96. To support this claim, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant and Penn Traffic jointly executed a plan to split up Penn Traffic's wholesale distribution business to avoid liability. See Id. at ¶ 94. Furthermore, Plaintiff argues that Defendant and Penn Traffic kept financial information about the Syracuse facility separate from their other business lines and stood to realize a profit based on the business. See Id. at ¶ 95.

         Finally, in its fourth cause of action, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant shares liability as a joint employer. See Id. at ¶¶ 97-101. Plaintiff claims that Defendant made payments to Penn Traffic that were related to obligations under the collective bargaining agreement. See Id. at ¶ 99. Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that Defendant had a "duty" to Plaintiff under applicable law. See Id. at ¶ 100.

         C. Plaintiff's first cause of action - ...


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