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MORIARTY v. SVEC

February 19, 1998

THOMAS J. MORIARTY, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES F. SVEC, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LINDBERG

 Plaintiff Thomas J. Moriarty, as one of the trustees of Local Union No. 727, I.B.T. Pension Trust ("Pension Fund"), and Teamsters Local Union No. 727 Health and Welfare Trust ("Health & Welfare Fund") (collectively "the Funds"), brings this action against the defendants to enforce payment of delinquent contributions allegedly due to the Funds pursuant to collective bargaining agreements between the Funeral Directors Services Association of Greater Chicago (FDSA), of which Svec & Sons Funeral Home ("the Funeral Home") was undisputedly a member, and the Auto Livery Chauffeurs, Embalmers, Funeral Directors, Apprentices, Ambulance Drivers and Helpers, Taxicab Drivers, Miscellaneous Garage Employees, Car Washers, Greasers, Polishers and Wash Rack Attendants Union, Local No. 727, I.B.T. ("the Union"). Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) to order defendants to pay such allegedly delinquent contributions. The court will grant the motion for summary judgment in toto.

 Plaintiff Moriarty brings this action on behalf of the Funds which are employee benefit plans set up to provide employment benefits to members of the Union whose employers are subject to collective bargaining agreements which require the payment of contributions on their employees' behalf. Defendants James F. Svec and Sharon Svec are the owners of the Funeral Home and West Suburban Livery (WSL), although James F. Svec runs both businesses as sole proprietorships under his control. At all times material to this action until December 14, 1995, the Funeral Home was a member of the FDSA which is an association of licensed funeral businesses providing funeral services, livery services, and funeral transportation services. The FDSA negotiates with the Union and enters into collective bargaining agreements on behalf of the FDSA's employer members, who are then bound by the terms of such agreements. The collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) provide that each employer member of the FDSA is obligated to contribute to the Funds for the work performed by their employees in the various classifications within the contractual bargaining unit.

 Elmer Svec, who was James and Sharon Svec's father, died on June 29, 1987. Before Elmer Svec's death, he owned the Funeral Home as a sole proprietor, and owned fifty percent of WSL as a partner with his son, James Svec, who owned the other fifty percent of WSL. At Elmer Svec's death, his interest in the Funeral Home and WSL passed to his wife, Anne Svec for a period of time. Some time later, Elmer Svec's interest in the Funeral Home and WSL was divided equally between his two children, James and Sharon Svec, such that James now owns seventy-five percent of WSL and fifty percent of the Funeral Home, and Sharon owns twenty-five percent of WSL and fifty percent of the Funeral Home. On February 16, 1988, Anne Svec executed a disclaimer renouncing all her rights, title, and interest as a joint tenant in the real property upon which the Funeral Home is situated. On April 15, 1993, James and Sharon Svec each signed documents evidencing receipt of their respective shares in the Svec & Sons Funeral Home business. The effect of the disclaimer of February 16, 1988, and of the documents signed on April 15, 1993, are disputed by the parties.

 James Svec alleges that he became an owner of the Funeral Home on February 16, 1988, when he claims that his mother disclaimed her entire interest in the business whereupon it passed to him and his sister. Because James Svec was allegedly a "principal owner" of the Funeral Home for this time period, he claims that he does not fall under the definition of "employee" as stated in the CBAs, and therefore James Svec does not owe contributions to the Funds on his own behalf for work he performed during that time. James Svec also claims that he is not liable as a successor to his father, Elmer Svec, for contributing to the Funds pursuant to the CBAs in effect during Elmer Svec's sole proprietorship (here the relevant time period would be January, 1987 through June, 1987). Plaintiff claims that the CBAs require payment of contributions to the Funds on James F. Svec's behalf under the terms of the CBAs in effect from January 1, 1987 through September 30, 1995. Moriarty also states that even if the court were to find that "principal owners" were not "employees" as defined in the CBAs, James Svec was not a "principal owner" of the Funeral Home business until April 15, 1993, so that there would be no basis for defendant's claim that he was not an "employee" of the Funeral Home for the period from January, 1987 through April, 1993.

 Plaintiff asserts that from October 1, 1993 through December 31, 1995, James F. Svec and Sharon Svec (WSL defendants) were contractually obligated under the terms of the CBAs to contribute to the Funds on behalf of the employees in the bargaining unit at WSL, which WSL defendants failed to do. Plaintiff claims that WSL is subject to the CBAs entered on behalf of the Funeral Home, and therefore contributions must be made to the Funds for the work performed by its bargaining unit employees during the relevant time period. WSL defendants claim that WSL was never a member of the FDSA and was therefore never subject to any CBA which requires them to contribute on behalf of WSL's employees.

 Plaintiff's prayer for relief states that James F. Svec owes $ 29,580 to the Health & Welfare Fund and $ 13,246 to the Pension Fund for work he performed as an employee at the Funeral Home. The complaint also states that WSL defendants owe $ 11,444 to the Health & Welfare Fund and $ 6,358.50 to the Pension Fund for work performed by the bargaining unit employees of WSL. Plaintiff asks the court to award the fees and cost of the audit which was necessary for bringing this lawsuit as well as his reasonable attorney's fees and costs of this action.

 I. DELINQUENT CONTRIBUTIONS ON BEHALF OF JAMES F. SVEC

 Summary judgment is appropriate when "no genuine issue as to any material fact" exists, and "the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In deciding whether to grant summary judgment, the court construes the evidence and all inferences which can be reasonably drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmovant (defendants in this case). Giannopoulos v. Brach & Brock Confections, Inc., 109 F.3d 406, 410 (7th Cir. 1997). The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) provides in part that:

 
Every employer who is obligated to make contributions to a multiemployer plan under the terms of the plan or under the terms of a collectively bargained agreement shall, to the extent not inconsistent with the law, make such contributions in accordance with the terms and conditions of such plan or such agreement.

 29 U.S.C. ยง 1145 (1997). In the instant case, there are a series of collective bargaining agreements entered between the FDSA and the Union which must be given effect. Defendant claims that the term "employee" in the CBAs is ambiguous, the interpretation of which requires a finding of fact, and therefore summary judgment is inappropriate. Plaintiff contends that the term "employee" is unambiguous and therefore the court must enforce the clear language of the CBAs as a matter of law.

 "Summary judgment is particularly appropriate in cases involving the interpretation of written contracts." ICEBU v. Hyster-Yale Materials Handling, Inc., 83 F.3d 930, 932-33 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Ryan v. Chromalloy American Corp., 877 F.2d 598, 602 (7th Cir. 1989)). Where a contract is susceptible to only one reasonable interpretation, it is unambiguous, and the court must determine its meaning as a matter of law. ICEBU, 83 F.3d at 933. When interpreting contracts or collective bargaining agreements, the Seventh Circuit has held that:

 
Although extrinsic evidence is admissible to show that a written contract which looks clear is actually ambiguous, perhaps because the parties were using words in a special sense, FDIC v. W.R. Grace & Co., 877 F.2d 614, 620-21 (7th Cir. 1989), there must be either contractual language on which to hang the label of ambiguous or some yawning void ... that cries out for an implied term.

 Bidlack v. Wheelabrator Corp., 993 F.2d 603, 608 (7th Cir. 1993). James Svec does not argue that the term "employee" itself or its contractual definition is ambiguous, rather he argues that "notwithstanding [the] seemingly clear language [of the CBA's definition of "employee"], 'principal owners' of FDSA members who perform funeral directing or embalming are not 'employees.'" Response brief, p. 12. "Employee" is defined in the CBAs covering funeral directors and embalmers as "any member of the union who is in the employ of an employer member who is licensed to and who does embalming and/ or funeral directing or who is serving as a trainee embalmer or funeral director trainee." James Svec, for all times relevant to this case, has been a member of the Union, and has been licensed ...


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