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Gunchick v. Bank of America

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 14, 2018

WESSLEY J. GUNCHICK, Plaintiff,
v.
BANK OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, United States District Judge

         Wessley Gunchick has sued Bank of America, which administers his pension plan under section 502(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), § 502(a), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), to "recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan . . . ." Bank of America has moved for summary judgment on both procedural and substantive grounds.

         Background

         LaSalle Bank, subsequently acquired by Bank of America, employed Gunchick as a loan officer from August 1994 to October 2003. Gunchick participated in the bank's pension plan. To calculate the value of Gunchick's pension upon retirement, the pension administrator considered his compensation level and length of service. Gunchick alleges that the pension administrator incorrectly calculated these values. Gunchick filed a claim with the administrator and, after that claim was denied, appealed the determination of his compensation level. After the pension administrator denied the appeal, Gunchick sued in this Court under ERISA. Bank of America argues it is entitled to summary judgment, because Gunchick (1) filed his claim after the statute of limitations passed, (2) failed to exhaust internal plan remedies before filing, and (3) fails on the merits of his claim. The Court reviews each argument in turn.

         Discussion

         A party is entitled to summary judgment if no reasonable finder of fact could find in favor of the other party. Vallone v. CNA Fin. Corp., 375 F.3d 623, 631 (7th Cir. 2004). Bank of America argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because Gunchick failed to file within the statute of limitations or to exhaust the remedies provided by the pension plan administrator. Bank of America also argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because no reasonable finder of fact could find that the pension administrator acted arbitrarily or capriciously.

         I. Statute of limitations

         To bring an ERISA claim under section 1132, the plaintiff must assert the claim within the statute of limitations. Rupert v. Alliant Energy Cash Balance Pension Plan, 726 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2013). Because Congress did not expressly include a statute of limitations for claims under section 1132, "the court borrows a statute of limitations from an analogous state law." Id. The Seventh Circuit has identified 735 ILCS 5/13-206, which provides a ten-year statute of limitations for actions on certain written instruments, as the analogous state law in Illinois. Lumpkin v. Envirodyne Indus., Inc., 933 F.2d 449, 465-66 (7th Cir. 1991). See also Hakim v. Accenture United States Pension Plan, 656 F.Supp.2d 801, 819 (N.D. Ill. 2009) (applying the ten-year statute of limitations of 735 ILCS 5/13-206 to a section 1132 claim). "The general federal common law rule is that an ERISA claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or should know of conduct that interferes with the plaintiff's ERISA rights." Young v. Verizon's Bell Atlantic Cash Balance Plan, 615 F.3d 808, 817 (7th Cir. 2010).

         Bank of America contends that Gunchick's claim is barred, because the ten-year limitation period commenced in November 2003, when he received a letter confirming his pension benefits. See Def.'s Ex. A at 31 (Nov. 20, 2003 letter describing pension payment options). In what appears to be an attachment to the letter, Bank of America advises Gunchick that his credited service commenced on January 1, 1993, id. at 35, and that his pay was $30, 568.16 in 2002 and $36, 000 in 2003. Id. at 37. Gunchick's present suit contests both of these figures. Because Bank of America notified Gunchick how it would calculate his length of service and compensation history in its benefits letter, his ERISA claim accrued in November 2003. Young, 615 F.3d at 817. See also Lofton v. Panasonic Pension Plan, No. 10 C 3909, 2012 WL 6186595, at *5 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 12, 2012) (finding that plaintiff's claim accrued upon receipt of a letter from the plan administrator describing the pension benefits that the plaintiff's suit contested). The limitations period expired in November 2013. For this reason, Gunchick's suit, filed in 2016, is untimely.

         II. Exhaustion

         A defendant is entitled to judgment on a plaintiff's ERISA claim if the plaintiff has not exhausted the remedies provided by the plan administrator. Orr v. Assurant Emp. Bens., 786 F.3d 596, 601 (7th Cir. 2015).

         Bank of America argues that Gunchick did not exhaust the remedies available to challenge the calculation of his length of service, because he did not raise this issue at each level of appeal provided by the pension administrator. Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Summ. J. at 8. The pension plan provides two levels of review to hear pensioners' challenges. Def.'s Ex. A at 10 (Bank of America Pension Plan for Legacy LaSalle) (describing right to appeal). Gunchick initially raised both his compensation and length of service complaints. But when Gunchick filed his appeal of his claim denial, he did not address the length of service calculation. Id. at 24. He therefore failed to exhaust internal plan remedies on this point. In response, Gunchick argues that Bank of America, when it denied his appeal, stated he was free to bring his claim in federal court. Resp. Br. at 8. This is no excuse: Bank of America's letter only addressed the compensation issue that Gunchick appealed, not the length of service issue that he did not raise. Gunchick's failure to exhaust available plan remedies regarding the length of service calculation precludes his claim on that point.

         III. Merits

         Finally, Bank of America argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on the merits of Gunchick's claim. A reviewing court may set aside an administrator's decision only if it is "arbitrary and capricious." Cozzie v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 140 F.3d 1104, 1107 (7th Cir. 1998). This "extremely deferential" standard of review only requires the administrator to make "a rational connection between the issue to be decided, the evidence in the case, the text under ...


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