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Ramsay v. Mayer

January 4, 2010

CONSTANCE RAMSAY, JOHN BELL, AND PEGGY CRADDIETH PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JUIITH MAYER, DIRECTOR OF HUMAN RESOURCES BOHEMIAN, THE TABOR HILLS HOME, AND THE PRUDENTIAL INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Virginia M. Kendall, United States District Judge

Judge Virginia M. Kendall

Plaintiffs Constance Ramsay, John Bell, and Peggy Craddieth (collectively "Plaintiffs"), bring this action against Defendants Judith Mayer, the Tabor Hills Home (formerly the Bohemian Home for the Aged), and the Prudential Insurance Company of America (collectively "Defendants") alleging violations of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. Defendants move to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Because Plaintiffs lack standing to bring suit under ERISA, the motions are granted.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are taken from Plaintiffs' Complaint and are accepted as true for purposes of deciding this Motion to Dismiss. The pro se complaint is construed liberally. See Henderson v. Sheahan, 196 F.3d 839, 845-46 (7th Cir. 1999).

Plaintiffs are the adult children of the late Betty Bell ("Bell"), who worked as a Nurse Assistant at Defendant Tabor Hills Home until her death on June 28, 2004. Comp. at 2. Bell was apparently unmarried at all relevant times. See id. ("Surviving the deceased, are [her children] . . . who are the only known beneficiaries."). Tabor Hills Home provided an employee retirement plan (the "Plan"), in which Bell was a participant. See id. Bell turned sixty-five years old on April 1, 2004, but elected to continue working beyond this date, which would have been her "normal" retirement date. See id. at 4. The Plan provided that employees in such a circumstance had two options:

If you are unmarried and die before your normal retirement date while still actively employed, no survivor plan benefit is payable. However, if you remain employed after your normal retirement date, you may elect to waive the normal form of payment and choose an optional form of payment that provides survivor plan benefit coverage or the single sum death benefit described below. The survivor plan benefit available under the optional form of payment that you elected would be payable even if you die before your annuity starting date.*fn1 Id. at 3. Plaintiffs acknowledge that Bell made no such election under the Plan, and state that she did not do so "because the fund never notified anyone adequately of any election procedure." Id. at 4. Plaintiffs therefore did not receive any payment from Bell's retirement Plan, although "life insurance benefits were paid to each child listed as a beneficiary." Id. at 2. Plaintiffs apparently assume that, because they were named beneficiaries of Bell's life insurance and because they are her legal heirs, Bell would have named them as the beneficiaries of her survivor plan benefit had she made the requisite election before her untimely death.

After Bell's death, Plaintiffs repeatedly sought clarification about the Plan and their mothers' benefits from Defendant Mayer, who is the Director of Human Resources at Tabor Hills Homes. Id. at 3-5. They were not satisfied with the responses that they received. Id. at 3-5. Thus, Plaintiffs seek payment of the annuity that they would have received had Bell made the appropriate election ($84,650.00) as well as various other damages and relief under ERISA. Id. at 10.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Although Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), it more importantly implicates Rule 12(b)(1) and the Court's subject matter jurisdiction over the case, as Defendants assert that Plaintiffs lack standing under ERISA. Whether standing exists is a paramount inquiry into a court's subject matter jurisdiction over a case, as it is "the threshold question in every federal case, determining the power of the court to entertain the suit." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975). If the Plaintiffs lack standing to bring this suit, then this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and the case must be dismissed.

A civil action to enforce ERISA's provisions may be brought by a participant, beneficiary, fiduciary, or the Secretary of Labor. See 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). Plaintiffs do not argue that they are participants in or fiduciaries of the Tabor Hills pension plan, but claim they are Bell's beneficiaries thereunder. An ERISA plan beneficiary has standing to bring suit "to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B).

Section 1002(8) of ERISA defines a "beneficiary" as "a person designated by a participant, or by the terms of an employee benefit plan, who is or may become entitled to a benefit thereunder."

29 U.S.C. § 1002(8). The Seventh Circuit has mandated a broad interpretation of ERISA's coverage, directing the district courts "to treat as a 'participant' for jurisdictional purposes anyone with a colorable claim to benefits . . . an approach equally applicable when a person claiming to be a 'beneficiary' files suit." Kennedy v. Conn. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 924 F.2d 698, 700 (7th Cir. 1991). Whether a supposed beneficiary has standing to bring suit under ERISA "depends on an arguable claim, not on success." Id. However, "standing require[s] more than a naked claim that one [is] a beneficiary under ERISA." Sladek v. Bell System Management Pension Plan, 880 F.2d 972, 979 (7th Cir. 1989). The relevant inquiry is thus whether Bell's children have a "colorable claim" that they are Bell's beneficiaries under the Plan.

DISCUSSION

Defendants argue that Bell's adult children are not ERISA beneficiaries and that they therefore lack standing to bring the present action. The operative question is whether the adult children of a plan participant who are her legal heirs, but who are never designated as her beneficiaries under the plan and can claim only a ...


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