The opinion of the court was delivered by: ZAGEL
This is a dispute over the size of Nick Russo's pension check. He is now paid, and will be as long as he lives, about half the amount he believes is his due. The facts,
in brief, are these:
Nick Russo was a teamster, covered under Local 705 Pension Fund. The Fund is a multi-employer pension system organized under the terms of ERISA. Benefits are paid under a plan adopted in 1976 by the fund trustees. By 1981, Russo had become disabled. He eventually received disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. In 1983 when Russo was 54 years of age he sought a pension benefit from the Local 705 Fund. He had over twenty years of vesting service. The 1976 Plan had four types of pensions, two of which matter here: 1) early pension (age 57 with 20 years service) and (2) disability (total disability with 15 years of service). Russo was given a disability pension. Before Russo applied for the pension he went to see Louis Peick, long-time Secretary-Treasurer (and administrator of its fund). At his meeting with Peick (and Joe Desmyter) Russo spoke of his problems. Peick said, "You come back and show me them papers from the government that you got social security and I'll give you your disability. And when you become of age I'll put you on your pension." Russo asked, "Is that it, Louie? Is it cut and dry?" Peick said, "Yes." Russo said, "So long, pal."
Sometime after Peick died Dan Ligurotis succeeded him in office. Nick Russo sought to change from disability pension to the higher early retirement pension. He was told no, "You take disability, you are on disability." A written request for such a change was made in April 1988 and denied in writing by Ligurotis. In August 1989 Russo's lawyer wrote requesting an early retirement program and in his letter, recited the statement of Peick to his client. A written denial was made. The denial was appealed to the fund trustees before whom Russo and his attorney appeared. The minutes of the hearing reflect consideration of all the relevant facts including Russo's current financial difficulties. The trustees affirmed the administrator's decision.
The ground for rejection of Russo's claim was the language of the 1976 Plan:
An employee shall be eligible for an Early Pension upon retirement on or after his 57th birthday and completion of 20 or more years of Vesting Service.
The administrator and then the trustees construed this to mean: early pension is available only to those who retire on or after the 57th birthday. Russo retired before his 57th birthday and, for this reason, could never comply with the conditions for Early Pension.
Under the Trust Agreement all "questions . . . as to any claim for any benefits . . . or . . . as to the construction of the language or the meaning of the pension plan . . . shall be submitted to the Trustees . . . and the decision of the Trustees shall be binding." The 1976 Plan contains similar language. So the trustees have discretion to construe the terms of the Plan and judicial review of their decision is quite limited. Fuller v. CBT, 905 F.2d 1055, 1058 (7th Cir. 1990). And here it is clear that challenged interpretation is reasonable. The Plan language may reasonably be read to require that "retirement on or after his 57th birthday" occur as a precondition to an early pension. This is particularly so because the Plan specifically provides deferred vested retirement for one who retires before age 57. See Apponi v. Sunshine Biscuits, Inc, 809 F.2d 1210 (6th Cir. 1987).
None of this is seriously contested. Russo says that Peick's statements defeat the defendants's right to summary judgment in a variety of ways:
(a) Peick's statement shows the Plan was not uniformly construed.
(b) Peick's statement estops the defendant from adopting the interpretation it applied to Russo.
The use of estoppel in pension fund administration has always troubled courts. If an administrator, through carelessness or collusion, may bind a pension fund to pay what it should otherwise not pay, the financial security of the pension fund is endangered. A remedy against the personal estate of the administrator may well be inadequate. See Reiherzer v. Shannon, 581 F.2d 1266, 1267 (7th Cir. 1978) (estoppel principles not to be used in pension plan cases).
The equitable appeal of estoppel claims, however, may be quite strong and in Black v. TIC Investment Corp., 900 F.2d 112, 115 (7th Cir. 1990) the Court retreated from Reiherzer holding that "estoppel [applies] to claims . . . under unfunded single employer . . . plans under ERISA" and expressing "no opinion as to . . . estoppel . . . in other situations." Of course, an unfunded single employer plan does not ordinarily involve the same ...