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Muff v. Iron Workers' Mid-America Pension and Supplemental Monthly Annuity Fund

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

April 4, 2018

JESSE MUFF, Plaintiff,
v.
IRON WORKERS' MID-AMERICA PENSION AND SUPPLEMENTAL MONTHLY ANNUITY FUND, Defendants, DEBORAH SALVATORE, Intervenor-Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHARLES P. KOCORAS, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Intervenor Deborah Salvatore's (“Salvatore”) motion to affirm the findings of the Appeals Review Committee of the Iron Workers' Mid-America Pension and Supplemental Monthly Annuity Funds. For the following reasons, Salvatore's motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Randall Kitchens (“Kitchens”) was a member of the Iron Workers' Union Local 63 (“IWU”). Defendants Iron Workers' Mid-America Pension Fund (the “Pension Fund”) and Supplemental Monthly Annuity Fund (the “SMA Fund”) (collectively, the “Funds”) are pension plans that offer retirement plans to employees of employers who are signed to collective bargaining agreements with IWU. Both plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. Kitchens participated in the Funds and, 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 $6, 220.98. Plaintiff Jesse Muff (“Muff”) is Kitchens' nephew. Muff believes that he, not Salvatore, is the proper beneficiary entitled to Kitchens' benefits under the Funds.

         Kitchens met Salvatore in 1978 and the two briefly dated. Many years later, in 2009, Kitchens and Salvatore rekindled their relationship. On or about September 28, 2011, Kitchens named Salvatore as his designated beneficiary for all benefits allowable through his membership in the IW U.Several months later, however, on January 6, 2012, Kitchens visited the union hall to replace Salvatore as his designated beneficiary with Muff.

         To successfully change the beneficiary for all his benefits, Kitchens had to complete and submit three different-colored cards. The white card, which can be submitted at the union hall, designates the beneficiary of the local international union death benefit. The two remaining cards, blue and yellow, designate the beneficiary of the Pension Fund and the SMA Fund death benefits, and must be sent by mail to a separate entity affiliated with the IWU. Kitchens successfully completed and submitted the white card naming Muff as his beneficiary of the union death benefit on January 6, 2012. He did not complete the blue and yellow cards at that time.

         Two years later, as Kitchens was preparing for an upcoming back surgery, he remembered that he had not completed the blue and yellow cards to remove Salvatore as the beneficiary on his pension benefits through the Funds. According to Ami Cutrone (“Cutrone”), Muff's former girlfriend, Kitchens obtained the blue and yellow cards and filled them out while she was present. Muff alleges that Kitchens asked Muff to confirm his social security number while completing the cards. Cutrone claims that Kitchens told her the next day that he was headed to the post office to mail the completed cards. Later that night, 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. Also around that time, Kitchens changed his beneficiary on a separate annuity held by Midland National Life Insurance Company (“Midland”) from Salvatore to Muff.

         After Kitchens' death, an attorney representing the Funds informed Muff and Salvatore that Salvatore was the designated beneficiary to Kitchens' death benefits under the Funds. Muff appealed that decision, and a hearing was held before the Appeals Review Committee of the Iron Workers' Mid-America Pension and Supplemental Monthly Annuity Fund (“Appeals Committee”)[1]. The Appeals Committee affirmed the designation of Salvatore as the recipient of Kitchens' death benefits. Muff subsequently filed the instant action requesting the Court to declare him the designated beneficiary of Kitchens' benefits under the Funds, to which Salvatore intervened as a necessary party.

         Muff, the Funds, and Salvatore each moved for summary judgment, which we denied on November 28, 2016. We found that the Appeals Committee's decision was arbitrary and capricious because it (1) provided no explanation regarding the evidence it reviewed and how it weighed that evidence, and (2) unreasonably failed to consider Muff's arguments and evidence regarding Kitchens' purported mailing of the change in beneficiary cards. We remanded the case so that the Appeals Committee could make further findings and provide additional explanation.

         On April 12, 2017, the Appeals Committee held a hearing after receiving briefs by both Salvatore and Muff and tendered a decision in favor of Salvatore on May 3, 2017 (“May Decision”). Muff appealed again. After the appellate review hearing, the Appeals Committee again found in favor of Salvatore on August 30, 2017 (“August Decision”). Salvatore then brought the instant motion, requesting the Court to affirm the Appeals Committee's decision.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         As previously discussed in our summary judgment order, we review the Appeals Committee's decision under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard. Under this standard, we will overturn the decision only if it is “downright unreasonable.” Mote v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 502 F.3d 601, 606 (7th Cir. 2007). In other words, the Appeals Committee's decision “should not be overturned as long as (1) ‘it is possible to offer a reasoned explanation, based on the evidence, for a particular outcome, ' (2) the decision ‘is based on a reasonable explanation of relevant plan documents, ' or (3) the [Appeals Committee] ‘has based its decision on a consideration of the relevant factors that encompass the important aspects of the problem.'” Hess v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 274 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing Exbom v. Cent. States, Se. & Sw. Areas Health & Welfare Fund, 900 F.2d 1138, 1142-43 (7th Cir. 1990)).

         Review under the arbitrary and capricious standard is “not a rubber stamp, ” however, and we will not uphold a decision “when there is an absence of reasoning in the record to support it.” Holmstrom v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 615 F.3d 758, 766 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Hackett v. Xerox Corp. Long-Term Disability Income Plan, 315 F.3d 771, 774-75 (7th Cir. 2003)). The Court must consider only the evidence that was before the Appeals Committee when it made its decision. Hess, 274 F.3d at 462. Moreover, “specific reasons for denial [must] be communicated” and the claimant must be “afforded an opportunity for full and fair review by the [Appeals Committee].” Mirocha v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 56 F.Supp.3d 925, 932 (N.D. Ill. 2014).

         Importantly, “it is not our function to decide whether we would reach the same conclusion as the [Appeals Committee] or even rely on the same authority.” Carr v. Gates Health Care Plan, 195 F.3d 292, 294 (7th Cir. 1999). We are not to analyze the parties' arguments, but whether the Appeals Committee's determination was reasonable. See Cvelbar v. CBI Ill. Inc., 106 F.3d 1368, 1379 (7th Cir. 1997), abrogated on other grounds by Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, Local 150, AFL-CIO v. Rabine, 161 F.3d 247 (7th Cir. 1998). If the Appeals Committee “made an informed judgment and articulate[d] an explanation for it that [was] ...


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