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Charles R. Buntenbach v. the Littelfuse Retirement

March 9, 2011

CHARLES R. BUNTENBACH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE LITTELFUSE RETIREMENT PLAN, THE RETIREMENT COMMITTEE, AND LITTELFUSE, INC. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow

OPINION AND ORDER

Charles Buntenbach filed a complaint against the Littelfuse Retirement Plan ("the Plan"), the Retirement Committee, and Littelfuse, Inc. ("Littelfuse") (collectively, "defendants"), seeking review of the Retirement Committee's denial of his right to certain benefits under the Littelfuse Retirement Plan established under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1132.*fn1 Count I seeks a determination of Buntenbach's right to future benefits, while Count II is a claim for equitable estoppel. Before the court is Buntenbach's motion for judgment on the pleadings with respect to Count I of the complaint. For the following reasons, the motion [#16] is denied.

BACKGROUND

Buntenbach began work at Littelfuse on February 1, 1972. In 1976, he became a participant in the Plan. The Plan is a qualified employee pension benefit plan under ERISA, with the Retirement Committee as its administrator. In 1992, the Plan was amended and restated to include, among other things, a temporary supplemental monthly retirement income for certain early retirees from Littelfuse. Specifically, section 2.2(D) reads:

Temporary Supplemental Monthly Retirement Income. A Participant who retires from the service of the Employer under the provisions of this Section 2.2 prior to his Normal Retirement Date and on or after both January 1, 1993 and the date as of which he has both attained the age of 62 years and completed 10 years of Vesting Service shall be entitled, in addition to the monthly retirement income described above in this Section 2.2, to a temporary supplemental monthly retirement income, in the amount determined under Subsection (1) below, that is payable in the manner described in Subsection (4) below.

Compl. ¶ 17. The 1995 Summary Plan Description describes the temporary supplemental retirement benefit as applying "[i]f [a participant] retire[s] after attaining age 62, but prior to attaining age 65, and after completing 10 or more years of service with Littelfuse." Id. ¶ 21. The Plan was subsequently amended in 1997 and 2008, but no change was made to the language of section 2.2(D). In March 2009, section 2.2(D) was amended to read:

A Participant who, as of April 1, 2009, had attained age 62 and completed 10 years of Vesting Service and who retires from the service of the Employer under the provisions of this Section 2.2 prior to his Normal Retirement Date and on or after both January 1, 1993 and the date as of which he has both attained the age of 62 years and completed 10 years of Vesting Service shall be entitled, in addition to the monthly retirement income described above in this Section 2.2, to a temporary supplemental monthly retirement income, in the amount determined under Subsection (1) below, that is payable in the manner described in Subsection (4) below.

Ex. 9 to Compl.

As a result of a reduction in force in Littelfuse's United States manufacturing plants, Littelfuse terminated Buntenbach on December 1, 2008. At that time, Buntenbach was fifty-seven years old and had more than ten years of vested service. On November 29, 2009, Buntenbach formally asserted his rights to the future benefit provided by section 2.2(D) of the Plan. The Retirement Committee denied Buntenbach's claim on February 16, 2010. Buntenbach appealed this denial on March 11, 2010, and the appeal was denied by the Retirement Committee on May 10, 2010. In its May 10, 2010 letter, the Retirement Committee stated that its decision rested on the fact that Buntenbach "did not reach age 62 before separating from service with Littelfuse, Inc. and is thereby not entitled to receive the temporary supplemental monthly retirement income benefit under the terms of the Plan." Ex. 10 to Compl. Relying on section 2.2(D) of the Plan, as in effect at the time of Buntenbach's termination, the Retirement Committee explained that "the participant must have reached age 62 at the time of his/her separation from service from Littelfuse to qualify" for the benefit. Id.

LEGAL STANDARD

A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is subject to the same standard of review as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). N. Ind. Gun & Outdoor Shows, Inc. v. City of S. Bend, 163 F.3d 449, 452 (7th Cir. 1998). In considering a Rule 12(c) motion, the court considers the complaint, the answer, and any written instruments attached as exhibits. Id. at 452--53. The court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and must draw all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. United States v. Wood, 925 F.2d 1580, 1581 (7th Cir. 1991). A grant of judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where "it is beyond doubt that the non-movant can plead no facts that would support his claim for relief." Id.

ANALYSIS

The denial of benefits in an ERISA case is reviewed de novo unless the plan provides the plan administrator with discretion to construe the plan's terms, in which case an arbitrary and capricious standard applies. Wetzler v. Ill. CPA Soc'y & Found. Ret. Income Plan, 586 F.3d 1053, 1057 (7th Cir. 2009). The parties do not dispute that the Plan provides the Retirement Committee, as the Plan administrator, with discretion to interpret the Plan terms, thus making the arbitrary and capricious standard applicable to the court's review of the denial of Buntenbach's benefits claim.*fn2 Under an arbitrary and capricious standard, "an administrator's interpretation is given great deference and will not be ...


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