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Gonzalez v. Local 553 Pension Fund

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 28, 2017

ANGEL GONZALEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
LOCAL 553 PENSION FUND, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          LORNA G. SCHOFIELD, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Angel Gonzalez (“Plaintiff”) commenced this action against Local 553 Pension Fund and the Trustees of the Local 553 Pension Fund (collectively, “Defendants”) after Defendants allegedly improperly suspended Plaintiff's early retirement benefits for engaging in “Disqualifying Employment.” Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), which the Court converted to a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons below, summary judgment is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts that follow are undisputed and drawn from the First Amended Complaint (the “Complaint”) and the administrative record. They are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, as the non-moving party. See Doe v. Columbia Univ., 831 F.3d 46, 48 (2d Cir. 2016).

         Plaintiff worked for employers who had collective bargaining agreements with Local 553 International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Due to Plaintiff's employment, Plaintiff was a participant in the Local 553 Pension Fund (the “Plan”). The Plan is a multi-employer trust fund within the meaning of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. Defendants are the Plan and the Trustees of the Local 553 Pension Fund (the “Trustees”), who administer the Plan.

         Plaintiff participated in the Plan for approximately 33 years as a “serviceman, ” whose job it was to “service and repair heating equipment.” On May 31, 2014, Plaintiff retired and began collecting retirement benefits as an early retiree. Also in May 2014, Plaintiff began work as New York Territorial Sales Manager for Carlin Combustion Technology (“Carlin”), “a division of C. Cowles and Company, [which] manufactures and sells heating equipment to wholesalers in the heating industry.”

         In 2014, Defendants learned that Plaintiff was working for Carlin. At their December 12, 2014, Trustees' meeting, Defendants determined that Plaintiff was engaged in “Disqualifying Employment” under the terms of the Plan and voted to suspend his retirement benefits effective January 1, 2015. Defendants notified Plaintiff of the suspension in a letter dated December 12, 2014. The letter stated that Plaintiff's employment violated Section 7.8 of the Plan, which states, in pertinent part:

(a) Before Normal Retirement Age
(i) The monthly benefits shall be suspended for any month in which a Participant is employed in “disqualifying employment” before he has attained Normal Retirement Age. “Disqualifying employment, ” for the period before Normal Retirement Age, is any type of employment with (A) any Employer who has a Collective Bargaining Agreement with any Union affiliated with the petroleum products or service of heating, ventilation or air conditioning equipment industry, (B) any trucking employer who has a Collective Bargaining Agreement with any other Local Union affiliated with petroleum products or services of heating, ventilation or air conditioning equipment industry, or (C) any other industry engaged in the installation, repair and maintenance of heating, ventilation or air conditioning equipment.

         In February 2015, Plaintiff appealed Defendants' decision to suspend his benefits, arguing that “(1) he did not work in the industry covered by the Pension Plan and (2) as a salesman of equipment, he did not ‘perform any trade or craft found in the industry.'” In a letter dated May 7, 2015, Defendants notified Plaintiff that his appeal was denied, and that the Department of Labor Regulations (the “Regulations”) on which Plaintiff's arguments had relied, did not apply to pre-normal retirement age pensioners.

         On November 16, 2016, Plaintiff initiated this action, alleging that (1) “[t]he Trustees did not provide Mr. Gonzalez with an independent or full and fair revue [sic] of his appeal, because they reviewed their own decision to suspend the payment of Mr. Gonzalez's retirement benefit”; (2) “the Trustees were arbitrary and capricious in determining that Mr. Gonzalez was employed in the ‘same industry' as defined by [29 C.F.R. § 2530.203-3(c)(2)(i)]”; and (3) “the Trustees arbitrarily and capriciously concluded that Mr. Gonzalez performed a trade or craft in the industry covered by the contributing employers to the plan and improperly suspended his retirement benefits.” On April 20, 2017, Defendants filed their motion to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Subsequently, the Court converted Defendants' motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 56 and provided the parties the opportunity to submit any additional pertinent material, which they declined.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgement should be granted where the record establishes that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Proctor v. LeClaire, 846 F.3d 597, 607 (2d Cir. 2017). There is a genuine dispute “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. Great Am. Ins. Co. of N.Y., 822 F.3d 620, 631 n.12 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “[O]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Pippins v. KMPG, LLP, 759 F.3d 235, 252 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Demery v. Extebank Deferred Comp. Plan (B), 216 F.3d 283, 286 (2d Cir. 2000)). The court must construe the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Wright v. N.Y. Dep't of Corr., 831 F.3d 64, 71-72 (2d Cir. 2016).

         “Although generally an administrator's decision to deny benefits is reviewed de novo, where, as here, written plan documents confer upon a plan administrator the discretionary authority to determine eligibility, [1] [courts] will not disturb the administrator's ultimate conclusion unless it is arbitrary and capricious.” Hobson v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 574 F.3d 75, 82 (2d Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); accord Zeuner v. Suntrust Bank Inc., 181 F.Supp.3d 214, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 2016). “[A]rbitrary and capricious means without reason, unsupported by substantial evidence or erroneous as a matter of law.” Roganti v. Metro. Life. Ins. Co., 768 F.3d 201, 210-11 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Where both the plan administrator and a spurned claimant offer rational, though conflicting, interpretations of plan ...


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