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Whisson v. Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

June 25, 2013

TERESA WHISSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CENTRAL STATES SOUTHEAST AND SOUTHWEST AREAS PENSION FUND, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOHN W. DARRAH, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Teresa Whisson, filed a Complaint against Defendant, Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund ("Central States"), on March 5, 2012, asserting Central States violated Section 502(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1132. The Complaint was amended on April 26, 2012. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which have been fully briefed. Whisson asserts she is entitled to summary judgment on her claim and that the decision by the Central States's Trustees Appellate Review Committee ("TARC") to deny her pension claim should be overturned. Central States contends that no genuine issues of material facts remain and that Central States is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

BACKGROUND

Local Rule 56.1(a)(3) requires a party moving for summary judgment to provide "a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue...." Local Rule 56.1(b)(3) requires the nonmoving party to admit or deny each factual statement proffered by the moving party and concisely designate any material facts that establish a genuine dispute for trial. See Schrott v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 403 F.3d 940, 944 (7th Cir. 2005). A litigant's failure to dispute the facts set forth in an opponent's statement in the manner dictated by Local Rule 56.1 results in those facts' being deemed admitted for purposes of summary judgment. Smith v. Lamz, 321 F.3d 680, 683 (7th Cir. 2003). Local Rule 56.1(b)(3)(C) further permits the non-movant to submit additional statements of material facts that "require the denial of summary judgment...."

To the extent that a response to a statement of material fact provides only extraneous or argumentative information, this response will not constitute a proper denial of the fact, and the fact is admitted. See Graziano v. Village of Oak Park, 401 F.Supp.2d 918, 937 (N.D. Ill. 2005). Similarly, to the extent that a statement of fact contains a legal conclusion or otherwise unsupported statement, including a fact which relies upon inadmissible hearsay, such a fact is disregarded. Eisenstadt v. Centel Corp., 113 F.3d 738, 742 (7th Cir. 1997).

The following facts[1] are taken from the parties' statements of undisputed material facts submitted in accordance with Local Rule 56.1.[2] Whisson is a resident of Homer Glen, Illinois, and Central States has its principal place of business in Rosemont, Illinois. (Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 3-4.) Jurisdiction exists pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1132(e), and venue is proper in this district as the acts alleged in the Complaint occurred within this district. (Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 5-6.)

Whisson was employed by Central States Pension and Health and Welfare Funds from September 7, 1977 to March 25, 2009. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 1.) In March 2009, Whisson received an email offering her the opportunity to participate in a voluntary reduction program; Whisson executed a Waiver and Release Agreement, which provided Whisson, if eligible, could "retire after receiving the last of your severance payments." (Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 9-10.) Whisson stopped receiving severance payments in July 2010. (Pl.'s Add'l. SOF ¶ 1.) However, over the course of her employment, Whisson earned credit under the Central States Pension Plan, entitling her to a pension of $3, 125.03 per month for life upon her retirement. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 1.) Whisson's pension was suspended because Central States determined she was engaged in Restricted Reemployment at Vitech System Group ("Vitech") since April 20, 2009. ( Id. )

The Plan and Benefits

The Pension Fund is a Taft-Harley Trust administered by an equal number of employer and employee trustees. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 2.) Employer trustees are officers of employer associations in the Teamster Industry; employee trustees are officials of Teamster unions. ( Id. ) The Pension Fund is a multiemployer employee pension benefit plan, as defined by Section 3(2)(A) of ERISA; it provides retirement benefits to qualifying employees who reach the age and service requirements stated in the Pension Plan. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 3, 8.) The Pension Fund is a non-profit Illinois trust, and payments from the trust to anyone that are not allowed by the Pension Plan terms reduce the amount of assets available to pay allowed benefits. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 4-5, 7.) The Pension Fund operates to protect the assets of the trust for Fund participants and beneficiaries; it is not an insurance company and earns no profits. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 6.)

The Central States Pension Fund Trust Agreement ("Trust Agreement") grants the Trustees the discretionary power and authority to administer the trust in the interests of participants and beneficiaries, including the authority to decide claims for benefits and construe the terms of the Pension Plan. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 10.) The Trustees have the power to operate and administer the trust in accordance with applicable law; they have the power to formulate any rules they deem necessary to properly administer the trust. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 11-12.) The Trust Agreement further provides that the Trustees have the authority to construe the provisions of the Trust Agreement and "any construction adopted by the Trustees in good faith shall be binding upon the Union, Employees, and Employers." (Def.'s SOF ¶ 13.) The Trustees also have the power to resolve controversies, "and the decision of the Trustees or of such committee thereof shall be binding upon all persons dealing with the Fund or claiming any benefits hereunder." (Def.'s SOF ¶ 14.) Under the Trust Agreement, the Trustees must use and apply the fund to pay benefits to eligible employees "in accordance with terms, provisions and conditions of the Pension Plan...." (Def.'s SOF ¶ 16.)

The 2010 Pension Plan Document ("Plan Document") contains rules regarding qualifications for the various pension benefits offered by Central States, including restrictions regarding reemployment after retirement. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 17-18.) The Plan Document defines the term "Restricted Reemployment, " which is applicable to all retired participants. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 19.) The Plan Document provides, in pertinent part, "The Pension Fund shall permanently suspend all Periodic Benefit Payments of a Pensioner or Disabled Participant during periods of his Reemployment to the following extent... all Periodic Benefits to a Pensioner shall be permanently suspended during all periods of his Restricted Reemployment...." (Def.'s SOF ¶ 20.) The Plan Document further defines reemployment as:

any employment, self-employment, occupation or service of any kind and at any time which is a basis for any form of past, present or future wages, salary, commissions, profit or other income (including employment in a managerial or supervisory position, and including any occupation or service in which there is no employer-employee relationship.

(Def.'s SOF ¶ 21.) "Restricted Reemployment means and includes... reemployment in any position in the same job classification as any other Participant then employed by a Contributing Employer located within 100 miles of the position." (Def.'s SOF ¶ 22.) A job classification is defined as "an arrangement of different types of employment within a company or industry, according to the skill, experience or training required." (Def.'s SOF ¶ 51.)

Application for Pension Benefits

Whisson applied for her pension on May 11, 2010, naming a retirement date of August 1, 2010. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 25.) Her application indicated she was employed since April 20, 2009, as a full-time Solutions Manager by Vitech, which was engaged in the business of Information Technology. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 25.) Whisson's application stated that she intended to work beyond her retirement date as a Solutions Manager with Vitech. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 30.)

Central States reviewed Whisson's application, determined that her employment at Vitech was considered Restricted Reemployment under the Plan, and rejected her request for her pension benefit while she was employed at Vitech. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 26.) John Young, who was involved in the review of Whisson's application at Central States, did not speak to Whisson about her job responsibilities at Vitech. (Pl.'s Add'l. SOF ¶ 7.) Young did not know what type of training Whisson received at Vitech. (Pl.'s Add'l. SOF ¶ 9.)

Whisson listed her responsibilities as a Solutions Manager for Vitech as:

Develop expertise in Vitech's V3 product, V3's target market business requirements, Vitech methodologies and Vitech's service offerings
Participate in and/or lead specific V3 client engagements including Launch Phase Activities, solutions design, solutions implementation, solutions deployment, testing, training, and project management
Understand, monitor, and manage client-goals, contract terms, project budgets, project staffing, project issues, and project scope across client base
Ensure compliance with strong delivery practice, including status calls, work lists, status memos, ...

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