United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
CHARLES P. KOCORAS, District Judge
the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56
(“Rule 56”). For the following reasons, Plaintiff
Jesse Muff's (“Muff”) motion for summary
judgment  is denied; Defendants Iron Workers'
Mid-America Pension Fund's (the “Pension
Fund”) and Supplemental Monthly Annuity Fund's (the
“SMA Fund”) (collectively,
“Defendants”) motion for summary judgment  is
denied; and Defendant-Intervenor Deborah Salvatore's
(“Salvatore”) motion for summary judgment  is
following facts are taken from the parties' statements
and exhibits filed pursuant to Northern District of Illinois
Local Rule 56.1 (“Local Rule 56.1 statement”).
Salvatore did not file a separate Local Rule 56.1 statement;
nor did she file an answer to Muff's 56.1(a)(3) statement
of undisputed material facts. Yet, in her motion for summary
judgment, she included a section labeled “Facts Not In
Dispute, ” which contains a list of nine numbered facts
with citations to the record. The Court assumes that this
section was intended to serve as Salvatore's Local Rule
56.1 statement. The Court disregards any argument,
conclusion, or assertion unsupported by the evidence in the
record. The parties do not dispute the facts stated below
unless otherwise noted.
Kitchens (“Kitchens”), Muff's uncle,
“was a member of the International Association of
Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron
Workers' Union Local 63” (“Iron Workers'
Union Local 63”). Defendants “are multi-employer
pension plans that offer retirement plans to employees who
perform work for employers who are signed to collective
bargaining agreements with Iron Workers' [Union] Local
63.” Both of these benefit plans are governed by the
Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974
(“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.
Kitchens participated in the Pension Fund and the SMA Fund
(collectively, “the Funds”) until his death on
February 2, 2015. At the time of his death, Kitchens'
designated beneficiary of his Pension Fund was entitled to
“a total of $889.50 per month up to $33, 007.60”
and the designated beneficiary of his SMA Fund was entitled
to “a lump sum death benefit” of approximately
1978, Kitchens met Salvatore. They were “romantically
involved” for about a year. Many years later, in 2009,
Kitchens and Salvatore rekindled their relationship.
Subsequently, on or around April 28, 2011, Kitchens named
Salvatore “his designated beneficiary for all benefits
allowable through his membership in the” Iron
Workers' Union Local 63. While this relationship lasted
longer than the first, the couple eventually parted ways. On
January 6, 2012, Kitchens replaced Salvatore, the named
beneficiary of his Iron Workers' Union Local 63 death
benefit, with Muff. He did so by completing a white card that
he obtained from the local union hall and personally handing
it to a representative there. “At the same time [that]
an Iron Worker requests the white change of beneficiary card,
” two additional cards, one blue and one yellow,
“are provided to union members at the union hall
allowing beneficiary changes to different accounts.”
However, “[u]nlike the white card, the blue and yellow
cards must be mailed directly to” the Funds. Although
Kitchens completed the white card on January 6, 2012, he did
not complete the blue and yellow cards on the same day. The
designated beneficiary of Kitchens' death benefit from
the Iron Workers' Union Local 63 is not presently at
issue; but, the parties dispute whether Salvatore is entitled
to Kitchens' benefits from the Funds.
September 12, 2014, Kitchens remembered that he had not
completed the blue and yellow cards, which would have removed
Salvatore as the beneficiary on his pension benefits. Thus,
Kitchens went to the union hall, obtained the blue and yellow
cards, and took them home to complete them. The parties
dispute whether the act of going to the union hall and
obtaining the blue and yellow cards demonstrates that
Kitchens intended to remove Salvatore as the designated
beneficiary of his benefits.
Cutrone (“Cutrone”), Muff's former
girlfriend, claims that she observed Kitchens complete the
blue and yellow cards. The parties dispute whether
“[t]he following day, Kitchens told Cutorne via
telephone that he was headed to the post office to mail the
completed blue and yellow cards.” However, the parties
agree that later on that same day, “Kitchens texted
Cutrone and said that he ‘[f]inally got that bitch out
of [his] money, ' by which Cutrone understood that
Kitchens mailed the completed blue and yellow cards.”
No evidence has been presented “that Kitchens was ever
informed of any issue related to the change of beneficiary
for” his Pension Fund benefits or his SMA Fund
Kitchens' death, on April 17, 2015, James Neuman
(“Neuman”), the attorney for the Funds, informed
Muff and Salvatore that Salvatore was the designated
beneficiary to Kitchens' death benefits. Subsequently,
Muff appealed “the decision that Salvatore was the
beneficiary of Kitchens' death benefits.” Prior to
the appeal hearing before the Appeals Review Committee of the
Iron Workers' Mid-America Pension and Supplemental
Monthly Annuity Fund (“Appeals
Committee”), Muff's attorney submitted a
“Brief in Support of Jesse Muff” articulating his
position that Kitchens intended to remove Salvatore as the
designated beneficiary to his Pension Fund benefits and SMA
Appeals Committee issued an opinion, which the Board of
Trustees (the “Trustees”) approved, affirming the
Administrator's designation of Salvatore as the recipient
of Kitchens' death benefits. Consequently, on January 15,
2016, Muff filed the instant action against the Funds
“seeking a declaratory judgment declaring him the
designated beneficiary” of Kitchens' Pension Fund
benefits and SMA Fund benefits. The Court then granted
Salvatore's motion to intervene as a necessary party. Now
before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for
STANDARD AND STANDARD OF REVIEW
judgment is appropriate when the movant establishes that
“there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact
and [that] the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material
fact arises where a reasonable jury could find in favor of
the non-movant based on the evidence of record. Anderson
v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).
“As with any motion for summary judgment, a court
considering cross-motions for summary judgment will
‘constru[e] all facts, and draw[ ] all reasonable
inferences from those facts in favor of the nonmoving
party.'” Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v.
Unger, No. 14 CV 07586, 2016 WL 5477523, at * 4 (N.D.
Ill. Sept. 29, 2016) (quoting Garofalo v. Vill. of Hazel
Crest, 754 F.3d 428, 430 (7th Cir. 2014)).
we must address the proper standard under which the Court
will review the Appeals Committee's determination to
affirm the Administrator's decision designating Salvatore
as the recipient of Kitchens' death benefits.
“Under ERISA, the default standard of review is de
novo, unless the governing plan expressly gives the
administrator the discretion to determine eligibility and to
interpret the terms of the contract.” Mirocha v.
Metro. Life Ins. Co., 56 F.Supp.3d 925, 931 (N.D. Ill.
2014); see also Tegtmeier v. Midwest Operating Engineers
Pension Trust Fund, 390 F.3d 1040, 1045 (7th Cir. 2004).
The plan documents that govern the SMA Fund state,
“[a]ll questions or controversies . . . shall be
submitted to the Trustees for decision . . . . The decision
on review shall be binding . . . except to the extent that
such decision may be determined to be arbitrary or capricious
by a court.” Similarly, according to the plan documents
governing the Pension Fund, “[t]he Trustees shall . . .
be the sole judges of the standard of proof required in any
case and the application and interpretation of this Plan; and
decisions of the Trustees shall be final and binding.”
Accordingly, because the Plans give discretion we apply the
arbitrary and capricious standard in reviewing the Appeals
this standard, a court defers to the plan administrator's
determination. See Hackett v. Xerox Corp. Long-Term
Disability Income Plan, 315 F.3d 771, 776 (7th Cir.
2003). “The reviewing court may not overturn the
administrator's decision if it ‘makes a rational
connection between the issues to be decided, the evidence in
the case, the text under consideration, and the conclusion
reached.'” Jackman Fin. Corp. v. Humana Ins.
Co., No. 08 C 5784, 2010 WL 1178067, at *3 (N.D. Ill.
Mar. 22, 2010) (quoting Exbom v. Cent. States Se. &
Sw. Areas Health & Welfare Fund, 900 F.2d 1138, 1143
(7th Cir. 1990)). However, “[r]eview under the
deferential arbitrary and capricious standard is not a rubber
stamp and deference need not be abject.”
Hackett, 315 F.3d at 774-75. “A court
considers whether there was a reasonable basis for the
administrator's determination; a court will not uphold
the administrator's decision ‘when there is an
absence of reasoning in the record to support it.'”
Mirocha, 56 F.Supp.3d at 932 (quoting Holmstrom
v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 615 F.3d 758, 766 (7th Cir.
2010)). Moreover, ERISA mandates that “specific reasons
for denial be communicated to the claimant and that the
claimant be afforded an opportunity for full and fair review
by the administrator.” Id. (quoting Tate
v. Long Term Disability Plan for Salaried Emps. of Champion