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Brenda Adkins v. Local 705 International Brotherhood of Teamsters Pension Fund

May 26, 2011

BRENDA ADKINS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LOCAL 705 INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS PENSION FUND, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Brenda Adkins ("Adkins") brings this action against Local 705 International Brotherhood of Teamsters Pension Fund ("Fund"), charging Fund with violating Employee Retirement and Security Act ("ERISA") Section 502(a)(1)(B)*fn1 and asserting an entitlement to restitution under federal common law.*fn2 Adkins has moved for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. ("Rule") 56 on the ERISA count, while Fund has moved for the same on both counts. For the reasons stated in this memorandum opinion and order, Fund's Rule 56 motion is granted as to both counts, resulting in the dismissal of this action.

Summary Judgment Standard

Every Rule 56 movant bears the burden of establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact (Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). For that purpose courts consider the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to nonmovants and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor (Lesch v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., 282 F.3d 467, 471 (7th Cir. 2002)). But a non-movant must produce more than "a mere scintilla of evidence" to support the position that a genuine issue of material fact exists (Wheeler v. Lawson, 539 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2008)) and "must come forward with specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial" (id.). Ultimately summary judgment is warranted only if a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-movant (Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

One more complexity is added where, as here, cross-motions for summary judgment are involved. Those same principles require the adoption of a Janus-like perspective: As to each motion the non-movant's version of any disputed facts must be credited. What follows, then, is a summary of the undisputed facts that pose no such complexity.*fn3

Factual Background*fn4

Adkins was employed as a dispatcher by Gas City, Ltd. and its successor A.D. Conner from February 1995 to November 2006 (¶3). Throughout that period both employers made pension contributions to Fund on behalf of members of the bargaining unit covered by their collective bargaining agreements ("CBAs") with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters AFL-CIO ("the Teamsters") (¶3). After Adkins became a member of the Teamsters in February 2003, A.D. Conner made such contributions to Fund on Adkins' behalf (¶3).

Adkins received statements from Fund in 2004 reflecting no pension credits for any year before 2003 (¶14). She then requested that Fund reflect such credits (¶¶14-15). After Fund refused, Adkins brought this action (¶18).

Benefits Under CBAs*fn5 Adkins contends that there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment on Count I, in which she claims she is entitled to benefits under the terms of the relevant CBAs and pension plan documents (A. Mem. 1). For its part, Fund focuses on the text of those agreements and other documents in arguing that there are no disputed issues of material fact to prevent this Court from granting its motion for summary judgment on Count I (F. Mem. 5-9). Fund has the better of that quarrel by a wide margin.

Where a pension plan administrator with vested discretion denies a claimant's request for benefit eligibility, courts employ the deferential arbitrary-and-capricious standard of review (Ramsey v. Hercules Inc., 77 F.3d 199, 202 (7th Cir. 1996)). Because of concern about the difficulty of clearly indicating the grant of that discretion in plan documents, Herzberger v. Standard Ins. Co., 205 F.3d 327, 331 (7th Cir. 2000) drafted this "safe harbor" language for ERISA plans to guarantee such a standard of review:

Benefits under this plan will be paid only if the plan administrator decides in his discretion that the applicant is entitled to them.

Courts uphold a plan administrator's decision under arbitrary-and-capricious review "so long as it is based on a reasonable interpretation of the plan's language and the evidence in the case" (Daill v. Sheet Metal Workers' Local 73 Pension Fund, 100 F.3d 62, 68 (7th Cir. 1996)).

Section 8.3 of the relevant pension plan document (F. Mem. Ex. 2) employs the safe harbor language prescribed in Herzberger. That being so, the administrator's decision here is entitled to the arbitrary-and-capricious standard of review. And it takes little discussion to see that Fund clearly prevails under that deferential standard.

Both parties agree that Adkins does not qualify as a member of the bargaining unit as defined in the CBAs (F. Mem. 5-6; 08 A. Mem. 4-5). Specifically, Art. 1 ยง4 of the relevant CBAs (F. Mem. Ex. 1) expressly limits the bargaining unit to "drivers...who ...


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