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BARNES v. MAYTAG CORP.

August 3, 1992

THEODORE BARNES, JR., a disabled adult, by Mary Ann Barnes, his Guardian, Plaintiff,
v.
MAYTAG CORPORATION, a Delaware corporation, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES L. FOREMAN

 FOREMAN, Senior District Judge:

 This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment (Document Nos. 12 and 14). The Court has jurisdiction of the case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (1988) because the plaintiff's complaint raises a federal question under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 - 1461 (1988).

 I. FACTS

 At issue in this case is whether the plaintiff is entitled to benefits under an employee retirement plan provided by the defendant. The parties have submitted a stipulation and a supplemental statement of certain undisputed facts in this case (Document Nos. 9 and 11). Based upon these documents, the Court finds the following:

 The plaintiff, Theodore Barnes Jr., is a mentally retarded, severely disabled adult. His parents were divorced in 1966 and the plaintiff was placed in the custody of his father, Theodore Barnes Sr., pursuant to a divorce decree entered on December 8, 1966. The order, however, provided that the plaintiff's mother, Jean Barnes, would have the right to have the plaintiff and the couple's two other children "over week ends and for a period of six (6) weeks in the summertime as may he agreed between the parties, during which time [Theodore Barnes Sr.] shall pay to [Jean Barnes] for the support of said children while in her custody as aforesaid, the sum of $ 30 per week."

 The plaintiff remained in his father's custody and was solely dependent upon his father until the elder Barnes died on January 29, 1987, at age 56. Theodore Barnes Sr. had not remarried and his marital status was single at the time of his death. The plaintiff's mother is still living. However, the plaintiff's sister, Mary Ann Barnes, was appointed the plaintiff's legal guardian on April 22, 1987.

 The plaintiff has requested payment of benefits under a retirement plan provided by the Maytag Corporation to its employees. Theodore Barnes Sr. became an employee of Maytag as a result of the merger of Magic Chef, Inc., into Maytag. At the time of his death, he had been an employee of Magic Chef/Maytag for 30 years. The plaintiff's request for benefits was reviewed by Maytag's ERISA Executive Committee and denied in a letter dated May 13, 1991. The reasons given for the denial were (1) that the retirement plan allows only surviving spouses to continue to receive benefits following the death of an employee; and (2) the 1966 Barnes divorce decree did not meet the requirements for a qualified domestic relations order and, therefore, did not qualify under the exception to ERISA's general rule prohibiting assignment or alienation of benefits. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d).

 Following the Executive Committee's decision, the plaintiff brought this action in state court on May 29, 1991. The defendant removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 (1988).

 II. ANALYSIS

 A court may grant summary judgment only if the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that no genuine issue of fact exists for trial and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); Wilson v. Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific R.R. Co., 841 F.2d 1347, 1354 (7th Cir. 1988). If that showing is made and the motion's opponent would bear the burden at trial on the matter that forms the basis of the motion, the opponent must come forth with evidence to show what facts are in actual dispute. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986); Donald v. Polk County, 836 F.2d 376, 379 (7th Cir. 1988). Where the moving party fails to meet its strict burden of proof, summary judgment cannot be entered even if the opposing party fails to respond to the motion. Yorger v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 733 F.2d 1215, 1222 (7th Cir. 1984).

 When the parties do not dispute the factual basis of a motion for summary judgment, as is the case here, the court's only inquiry is whether judgment should issue as a matter of law. The burden of proof on this matter rests with the moving party. Summary judgment is inappropriate, however, if the parties disagree about inferences reasonably to be drawn from undisputed facts. Bowyer v. United States Dep't of Air Force, 804 F.2d 428, 430 (7th Cir. 1986).

 The plaintiff's complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that the plaintiff is entitled to benefits under the defendant's employee retirement plan. Because the plaintiff's action relates to an employee benefit plan, this state law theory of recovery is pre-empted under section 1144(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a) (1988). *fn1" Thus, plaintiff's complaint must he construed as a claim under ERISA's civil enforcement provision in 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). *fn2"

 The Supreme Court has held that "a denial of benefits challenged under § 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, 103 L. Ed. 2d 80, 109 S. Ct. 948 (1989). In those cases in which the plan administrator is given discretion, the arbitrary or capricious standard is applied. Rizzo v. Caterpillar, Inc., 914 F.2d 1003, 1008 (7th Cir. 1990).

 The defendant's retirement plan gives discretionary authority to the Executive Committee "to construe the Plan and Trust Agreement and to determine all questions arising in the administration, interpretation and operation of the Plan . . . ." Joint Exhibit A, Art 11, § 11.04. Thus, the Court must determine whether the committee's denial of benefits was arbitrary or capricious, which has been defined within the context of ERISA as follows:

 The arbitrary and capricious standard holds that a trustee's decision shall not be overturned on a § 1132(a)(1)(B) matter, absent special circumstances such as fraud or bad faith, if "it is possible to offer a reasoned explanation, based on the evidence, for a particular outcome." . . . "[A] court will not set aside the denial of a claim if the denial is based on a reasonable interpretation of the relevant plan documents." . . . Nor will it do so where the trustee has based its decision "'on a consideration of the relevant factors'" that encompass the "'important aspects of the problem'" before it. . . . If the trustee makes an informed judgment and articulates an explanation for it that is satisfactory in light of the relevant facts, i.e., one ...


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