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JOHNSON v. LONG TERM DISABILITY PLAN AND IMC GLOBAL

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois


February 17, 2004.

CATHERINE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
LONG TERM DISABILITY PLAN and IMC GLOBAL, INC., Defendants

The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT GETTLEMAN, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Catherine Johnson filed a complaint against her former, employer IMC Global Inc. ("IMC") and its Long Term Disability Plan (the "Plan") seeking disability income benefits pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ER SA"). 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Plaintiff has demanded a jury trial. Defendants have moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.112(b)(6), and to strike the jury demand. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is to dismiss is denied, and the motion to strike the jury demand is granted.

FACTS*fn1

  Plaintiff was employed by IMC from June 9, 1988, until January 16, 2001, when she ceased working due to multiple medical impairments including fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders. Due to her condition, plaintiff has been continuously unable to perform Page 2 the material duties of her occupation or any other occupation since January 16, 2001. Plaintiff was covered by the Plan and she applied for benefits subsequent to ceasing her employment. The Plan defines disability as,

. . . the inability to perform all of the important duties of your job or another job offered by IMC, due to illness or injury. You must also not be working at any other job. This definition applies during the first 30 months of an period of disability.
  By the express terms of the Plan, IMC is the designated plan administrator (the "Plan Administrator") and has discretionary authority to determine benefits eligibility throughout the Plan's administrative claims and appeal process. Plaintiff initially supported her claim for benefits with numerous medical records and reports, and other evidence certifying her disability. Benefits were approved both for short-term disability and, eventually, long-term disability. However, despite the continued submission of proof of ongoing disability, her benefits were terminated as of August 31, 2002.

  Following the termination of her disability benefits on August 31, 2002, plaintiff submitted an appeal for benefits to IMC, which included medical and vocational evidence supporting her ongoing disability. In addition, IMC required that plaintiff undergo two examinations by physicians selected by IMC, both of whom reported that plaintiff was incapable of working. Despite the doctors' reports, her claim for benefits was denied.

  DISCUSSION

  Defendants have moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), arguing that the complaint fails to allege that the decision to deny benefits was arbitrary and capricious. For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the court accepts all well-pleaded allegations as true and draws Page 3 all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Travel All Over the World, Inc. v. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 73 F.3d 1423, 1428 (7th Cir. 1996). The consideration of Rule 12(b)(6) motion is generally restricted to the pleadings, which include the complaint and, any attached exhibits. Thompson v. Illinois Dep't of Prof. Regulation, 300 F.3d 750, 753 (7th Cir. 2002).

  Defendants argue that because the Plan gives "the administrator discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits" this court may overturn that decision only if it was arbitrary and capricious. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 11 (1989). Citing Armbruster v. Benefit Life Trust Ins. Co., 687 F. Supp. 403, 406 (N.D. II 1988), defendants argue that plaintiff is required to plead the standard of review. The complaint does not allege that the decision to deny benefits was "arbitrary and capricious." However, under the notice pleading requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a), the complaint is sufficient of it alleges facts sufficient to support a conclusion that the decision was arbitrary and capricious. The instant complaint alleges that benefits were denied despite the fact that defendant's own doctors reported that plaintiff is totally incapable of working, thus meeting the Plan's definition of disability. Assuming these facts to be true, the trier of fact could conclude that the decision was arbitrary and capricious. Accordingly, defendants' motion to dismiss is denied.

  Defendants also move to strike plaintiffs demand for a jury trial. The Seventh Circuit has consistently held that because suits for benefits under 502(a)(1)(B) are equitable in nature plaintiffs bringing such actions are not entitled to a jury trial. Wardle v. T'ent, States, Southeast and Southwest Area Pension Fund, 627 F.2d 820, 829 (7th Cir. 1980) cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1112 (1981); see also Brown v. Retirement Com. Of Briggs & Stratton Ret. Plan, 797 F.2d 521, 527 (7th Cir. 1986) cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1094 (1987). Other Courts of Appeal agree that a jury is Page 4 unavailable in this type of case. See Thomas v. Oregon Fruit Producers Co., 228 F.3d 991, 996 (9th Cir. 2000); Adams v. Cyprus Amax Minerals Co., 149 F.3d 1156, 1162 (10th Cir. 1998); DeFelice v. Am. Int'l Life Assur. Co. of N.Y., 112 F.3d 61, 64 (2d Cir. 199 7); Borst v. Chevron Corp., 36 F.3d 1308, 1324 (5th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1066 (1995); Cox v. Keystone Carbon Co., 894 F.2d 647, 649 (3d Cir. 1990); Howard v. Parisian, Inc., 307 F.2d 1560, 1567 (11th Cir. 1987); Berry v. Ciba-Geigy Corp., 761 F.2d 1003, 1006-07 (4t Cir. 1985); In re Vorpahl, 695 F.2d 318, 321-22 (8th Cir. 1982).

  Although plaintiff argues that her claim is similar to a breach of contract claim, she brings her claim under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). As defendants correctly note, "the prevailing weight of authority has been to disallow juries in ERISA benefit claims characterizing such actions as equitable in nature." See Wardle, 627 F.2d at 829. This court will follow the prevailing weight of authority and strike the jury demand.

  CONCLUSION

  For the reasons stated above, defendants' motion to dismiss is de: ed and their motion to strike the jury demand is granted. Defendants are directed to file their answer to the complaint on or before March 8, 2004. The parties are directed to prepare and file their joint status report (using this court's standard form) on or before March 8, 2004. The status having been previously set for February 18, 2004, is continued to March 11, 2004, at 9:00 a.m.


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