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Francis v. Rodman Local Union 201 Pension Fund

May 14, 2004

SILBURN B. FRANCIS, APPELLANT
v.
RODMAN LOCAL UNION 201 PENSION FUND, ET AL., APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 01cv02390)

Before: Ginsburg, Chief Judge, and Sentelle and Garland, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garland, Circuit Judge

Argued April 23, 2004

Silburn Francis filed suit against the Rodman Local Union 201 Pension Fund to recover benefits assertedly due him under the terms of an employee pension plan. The district court granted summary judgment for the Fund, concluding that Francis is not entitled to the benefits he seeks. We affirm.

I.

The instant appeal arises out of litigation extensively chronicled in this court's opinions in Berger v. Iron Workers Reinforced Rodmen, Local 201, 843 F.2d 1395 (D.C. Cir. 1988) ( Berger I ), and Berger v. Iron Workers Reinforced Rodmen, Local 201, 170 F.3d 1111 (D.C. Cir. 1999) ( Berger II ). The Berger litigation began in 1975, when a class of African-American rodmen -- "construction workers who handle and position steel rods for reinforcing concrete and other building materials" -- sued Iron Workers Reinforcing Rodmen, Local 201 and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, AFL- CIO (collectively "the unions") for denying them the benefits of union membership on account of their race. Berger I, 843 F.2d at 1405-06. Although he was not a named plaintiff, Francis claimed to be a member of the Berger class. In Berger I, we upheld the district court's determination that the unions were liable for discrimination, and in Berger II we upheld a number of the court's determinations with respect to class membership and the remedies due class members.

One determination that we specifically did not uphold involved plaintiff Francis himself. The district court (in the form of a court order adopting the report of a Special Master) had found Francis to be a member of the plaintiff class, and it had awarded him $166,382 in back pay and $10,000 in compensatory damages. This court, however, concluded that "[t]here was conflicting testimony and other evidence as to whether Silburn Francis sought union membership during, rather than after, the liability period," and that the Special Master had "weighed this evidence according to an incorrect ... burden of proof." Berger II, 170 F.3d at 1126. Because we were "unable to determine whether the Master would have made the same findings if he had applied the correct burden of proof," we remanded for a redetermination of whether Francis was an appropriate member of the class. Id. In so doing, we emphasized that "Francis' award [was] subject ... to the outcome of the remand of his class membership." Id. at 1135 n.13.

On remand from Berger II, a number of claimants settled their claims with the unions on an individual basis. Francis, represented by his own attorney, was one of those claimants. In return for "the sum of $150,000.00 in damages," Francis agreed to a "full, final and complete settlement" of all of his claims. Francis Settlement Agreement at 1 (Oct. 12, 1999) (J.A. at 66).

A year later, on October 9, 2000, Francis applied for pension benefits. The Pension Fund calculated his pension based on the reported hours he had worked in "Covered Employment." Cicero Decl. ¶ 5 (J.A. at 256). The Fund's calculation excluded hours that Francis did not work, but that he contends he would have worked but for the discrimination charged in the Berger litigation. Unhappy with the exclusion, Francis asked the Fund to readjust his pension to reflect those lost hours. The Fund denied that request.

On November 16, 2001, Francis filed the instant action to recover the disputed pension benefits from the Fund, and the unions intervened as defendants. After briefing and argument, the district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. This appeal followed.

II.

Francis filed this lawsuit, pursuant to section 502(a)(1)(B) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), "to recover benefits due to him under the terms of" an employee pension plan. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). The case turns in substantial part on the meaning of a specific provision of the Rodman Local Union 201 Pension Plan. Francis argues that we should determine the meaning of the provision de novo, because it incorporates the terms of a regulation promulgated by the Department of Labor. The Fund, citing this circuit's decision in Block v. Pitney Bowes Inc., contends that where, as here, a pension plan gives its trustees "discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits [and] to construe the terms of the plan," we must uphold the trustees' construction as long as it is reasonable. 952 F.2d 1450, 1452 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (quoting Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989)). We need not resolve this disagreement, however, because it is plain that the Fund would be the victor under either standard of review.

Under the Plan, a participant's entitlement to a pension is based on his "hours of service." Pension Plan §§ 5.3, 5.6 (J.A. at 261-62). The Plan defines "hours of service" as:

[E]ach hour for which an Employee is paid or entitled to be paid for work in Covered Employment. The term "Hour of Service" also includes each hour for which back pay, regardless of mitigated damages, is awarded or agreed to by an Employer to the extent such award or agreement is intended to compensate an Employee for periods during which he would have been engaged in Covered Employment.... Hours of ...


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