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Gosselin v. Sheet Metal Workers' National Pension Fund

United States District Court, E.D. New York

August 4, 2017




         I. Preliminary Statement

         Plaintiff Raymond E. Gosselin (“Plaintiff”) brings this declaratory judgment action against Defendant Sheet M Workers' National Pension Fund (the “Fund” or “Defendant”), pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., seeking, inter alia, an award of the entire amount of the pension benefits he claims is due and payable from the Fund. See generally Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”) [DE 13]. Plaintiff alleges that the Fund's decision to deny his claim for pension benefits was arbitrary and capricious. See Id. ¶¶ 50, 57.

         Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion seeking certain discovery beyond the administrative record. See Plaintiff's Letter Motion (“Pl.'s Mot.”) [DE 19]. Specifically, Plaintiff seeks an Order permitting him to “take the deposition of at least the plan administrator . . . and to engage in written discovery.” Id. at 4. The Fund opposes the motion. See generally Defendant's Opposition (“Def.'s Opp'n”) [DE 20]. For the reasons set forth in this Memorandum and Order, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED.

         II. Factual Background

         The following facts are taken primarily from Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, the parties' motion papers and documents attached to those submissions. All facts alleged are assumed to be true for purposes of this motion.

         Plaintiff began working in the sheet m fabrication industry in 1978 upon accepting an apprenticeship with Triple S Sheet Metal. Am. Compl. ¶ 7. At the time Plaintiff began his apprenticeship, “Triple S Sheet M was a signatory to a contract with the Sheet M Workers' Local Union 55, of whom Plaintiff was a member. By the end of his apprenticeship, Triple S Sheet M was a [ ] signatory to a contract with the Sheet M Workers' Local Union 28 (‘Local 28'), of whom Plaintiff was and still is a member.” Id. ¶ 8. From 1978 through 1982 - the term of Plaintiff's apprenticeship - he “began accruing pension service credit. . . .” Id. ¶ 9. Following the conclusion of the apprenticeship, Plaintiff continued to work for Triple S Sheet M as a “Sheet M Worker” and his duties consisted of ductwork fabrication. Id. ¶ 10. Thereafter, in 1983, Plaintiff was promoted to the position of “Shop Foreman” which, in addition to his fabrication duties, required him to supervise other sheet m workers, maintain the equipment and hire and terminate employees. Id. ¶ 11.

         In 1996, Triple S Sheet M was sold and subsequently became known as Triple S Air Systems, Inc. (“Triple S”). Id. ¶ 12. Notwithstanding this change in ownership, “Triple S continued to be a signatory to a contract with Local 28.” Id. ¶ 12. Despite his employment with Triple S, “[f]rom 2001 through 2010, Plaintiff received holiday bonuses and travel reimbursement from Triple S on a separate payroll through J&S Fabricators, Inc. (‘J&S'), a separate and distinct company from Triple S.” Id. ¶ 13. According to Plaintiff, the decision to issue these bonus and reimbursement payments to Plaintiff from J&S as opposed to Triple S was unilaterally made by “the former president of J&S, Steven Benkovsky.” Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff did not have knowledge as to the ownership structure or purposes of J&S and did not have any control over the ultimate determination concerning which account (i.e., Triple S or J&S) these payments originated from. Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff asserts that although he received bonus payments and reimbursements from J&S, he “did not perform even one second of work for J&S” and that he “exclusively worked for Triple S and no other employers.” Id. ¶¶ 16-17. Further, although Triple S “remained a signatory to a collective bargaining agreement with Local 28 . . . J&S was not and has never been a signatory to a collective bargaining agreement with Local 28.” Id. ¶¶ 18-19.

         In late 2014 - shortly before he reached his 55th birthday - Plaintiff contemplated retirement due in part to the fact that “the Fund provides a 55/30 Pension (set forth in Section 5.09 of the Fund's Plan), which in essence, allows participants to obtain unreduced pension benefits if they are fifty-five (55) years old and have obtained thirty (30) years of service credit.” Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Significantly, “[u]nlike participants of the Fund, participants of the SMWIA Local 28 Pension Fund are not entitled to unreduced pension benefits from the SMWIA Local 28 Pension Fund if they retire prior to age sixty-five (65) and have thirty (30) years of service credit. However, they are entitled to reduced pension benefits from the SMWIA[1] Local 28 Pension Fund at age fifty-five (55).” Id. ¶ 23. As such, Plaintiff opted to apply for pension benefits from both plans since “under the Fund, Plaintiff was entitled to receive full pension benefits.” Id. ¶ 24.

         On December 17, 2014, Plaintiff was notified by the SMWIA Local 28 Pension Fund that his application for reduced pension benefits was granted; however, as of January 2015, Plaintiff had not received any response from the Fund as to his application for full pension benefits in accordance with Section 5.09 of the Fund's Plan. Id. ¶¶ 21, 23. As a result, Plaintiff advised the SMWIA Local 28 Pension Fund and the Fund that he wished to postpone his retirement date of January 31, 2015 until further notice, and he continued to work for Triple S and continues to do so to this day.” Id. ¶ 24.

         Subsequently, on March 24, 2015, the Fund advised Plaintiff that based upon the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) records, which reflected that Plaintiff had, in fact, worked for J&S from 2001 through 2010, the Fund would require Plaintiff to provide a description of the services provided by J&S, Plaintiff's title, job description, and whether it had any union affiliation” in order to “determine Plaintiff's eligibility for the 55/30 pension.” Id. ¶ 28. In response, Plaintiff stated that he had “no job description or job title from J&S and that he received money from J&S only as bonuses for work done at Triple S.” Id. ¶ 29. In addition, Plaintiff provided the Fund's correspondence to Benkovsky who, in turn, drafted a letter to the Fund setting forth that J&S did not “perform any work under a collective bargaining agreement” nor did it engage in sheet m work or any other services “relating to handling, manufacturing, fabrication, installation, dismantlement, balancing and testing, alteration, repair, or servicing of any sheet m or substitute product.” Id. ¶ 30. In addition, Benkovsky stated that J&S ceased activities in 2010, filed its final corporate income tax for 2014, and [wa]s expected to dissolve by April 30, 2015.” Id.

         Despite the provision of this additional information, “the Fund denied Plaintiff's application for the 55/30 Pension” on June 5, 2015 because it determined that “Plaintiff must have worked for J&S since the SSA indicated that Plaintiff received earnings from J&S” during the applicable time period. In the Fund's view, J&S did perform work in the “Sheet M Industry" since (1) it was "still an active employer" and (2) "the name [ ] lends itself to be a company that works in the assembly and fabrication of products. Id. ¶¶ 31-33.

         Following the Fund's denial of his application for pension benefits, "Plaintiff requested an appeal of the Fund's decision" on November 3, 2015. Id. ¶ 36. In support of his appeal, Plaintiff submitted written correspondence which stressed that "the money that was paid to him by Triple S through J&S were for bonuses, not for work performed for J&S" and that in any event he had "no idea at the time why Triple S used another company to pay him his bonuses and that he should not be penalized for something that he had no control over." Id. ¶ 37. On December 19, 2015, the Appeals Committee denied Plaintiffs appeal. Id. ¶ 38; see Def.'s Opp'n, Exhibit ("Ex.") A (December 19, 2015 Denial Letter).

         Thereafter, Plaintiff retained counsel and on March 7, 2016, Plaintiff (through counsel) sent a letter to the Fund's "Pension Specialist" and requested that the Fund permit a ninety (90) day extension to supplement Plaintiffs appeal to ensure Plaintiff is provided with a full and fair review." Id. ¶ 40. In support of this request, Plaintiffs counsel provided the Fund with additional documentation. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. In response, the Fund reiterated that it understood Plaintiffs position but that "its decision was based on the fact that official filings with the SSA indicate that Plaintiff was paid by J&S (a non-signatory company in the Sheet M Industry) for employment." Id. ¶ 43.

         Nevertheless, according to Plaintiff, the Fund, through counsel, indicated that Plaintiff could still provide evidence that Plaintiff was not an employee of a non-signatory company in the Sheet M Industry." Id. ¶ 44. As such, Benkovsky provided a sworn affidavit to Plaintiffs counsel which attempted to clarify certain information contained in his earlier letter." Id. ¶ 45. On May 16, 2016, Plaintiffs counsel sent Benkovsky's affidavit to the Fund and requested reconsideration of the denial of his application for a 55/30 Pension. . . .” Id. ¶ 46. Despite the provision of this additional information “the Fund upheld the denial of Plaintiff's application.” Id. ¶ 47.

         III. Plaintiff's Motion

         A. Applicable Law

         “ERISA does not set out the applicable standard of review for actions challenging benefit eligibility determinations.” Fay v. Oxford Health Plan, 287 F.3d 96, 103 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Zuckerbrod v. Phoenix Mut. Life Ins. Co., 78 F.3d 46, 49 (2d Cir.1996)) (quotation marks omitted). However, the Supreme Court has held that “a denial of benefits challenged under [ERISA] § 1132(a)(1)(B) 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.” Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989); see Kosakow v. New Rochelle Radiology Assocs., P.C., 274 F.3d 706, 738 (2d Cir. 2001) (“[W]here a plan does confer discretion upon the administrator to determine eligibility or interpret the terms of the plan, the determinations of the administrator are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard.”). “When such discretionary authority is reserved, a court ‘will not disturb the administrator's ultimate conclusion unless it is arbitrary and capricious.'” S.M. v. Oxford Health Plans (N.Y.), Inc. (“S.M. II”), 94 F.Supp.3d 481, 497 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) aff'd sub nom. S.M. v. Oxford Health Plans (N.Y.), 644 F. App'x 81 (2d Cir. 2016), cert. denied sub nom. S.M. v. Oxford Health Plans (NY), Inc., 137 S.Ct. 148, 196 L.Ed.2d 45 (2016) (quoting ...

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