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Brehmer v. Inland Steel Industries Pension Plan

June 10, 1997

JANET BREHMER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

INLAND STEEL INDUSTRIES PENSION PLAN, INLAND STEEL COMPANY AND INLAND STEEL INDUSTRIES, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 94 C 7751 Ann Claire Williams, Judge.

Before RIPPLE, MANION, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

MANION, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED FEBRUARY 14, 1997

DECIDED JUNE 10, 1997

In 1990, Janet Brehmer, a worker at Inland Steel's Chicago plant, sought and was granted a two-year leave of absence. At the end of her leave, she wished to return to her former position, but the company had no room for her. It later notified her that she qualified for a deferred vested pension. But she considered herself entitled to and so requested an enhanced, "Rule-of-65" pension, as well as other compensation and benefits. The company's pension plan denied her application, however, because she left on a leave of absence, not due to a permanent plant shutdown or elimination of any position or expiration of a company-directed layoff. She sued, alleging that the plan wrongfully denied her the Rule-of-65 pension, failed to comply with ERISA's regulatory claim review process, and discharged her to prevent her from attaining the more lucrative pension. Because the district court properly concluded that the plan administrator's interpretation of the pertinent plan language was not arbitrary and capricious, and Brehmer's other claims are without merit, we affirm its grant of summary judgment to the defendants.

I.

Janet Brehmer began work for Inland Steel in May 1968. In November 1990, after 22« years in various positions with the company, most recently as supervisor of material control in the purchasing department, she asked for a two-year leave of absence. She was frank in her written request:

My husband moved up his retirement date from 1993 to 1991 because of his health. We are also moving out of this area to a warmer climate because of his health. I'm not sure how the relocating is going to work out. I would like to leave my job at Inland as an open option.

This request form, which Brehmer signed, contains the handwritten note: "Janet & Mgt to provide copy of documentation re: replacement understood." Two weeks later Inland Steel conditionally granted Brehmer's leave request:

Your leave of absence is being accepted with the understanding that your current assignment and position are part of the total Material Control reorganization planned for January 1, 1991 implementation. Therefore, upon your return, job placement will be offered based upon organization needs.

Brehmer and her husband then moved to Tucson, Arizona.

While Brehmer was on leave, her department was reorganized and several positions were eliminated. Inland Steel's leave of absence procedures provided that "nothing . . . shall be construed to imply a guarantee of reemployment. An employee returning from an extended Leave of Absence will receive reassignment to the job last held, whenever possible. Where this is not possible, he or she will be given consideration for any other appropriate position vacancies . . . . Employees who are granted an extended Leave of Absence shall be terminated unless they return to work on or before the terminal date specified in the approval for the Leave of Absence."

Twenty months into her two-year leave, Brehmer wrote to Inland Steel asking to return to work. On December 22, 1992, near the end of Brehmer's leave, Inland Steel responded to her inquiry:

This letter is to inform you that there is no position available for you in the Purchasing Department. As you are aware, it was necessary to replace you at the time you commenced your leave of ...


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