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Wasserstein v. University of Chicago

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

July 19, 2018

BERNARD WASSERSTEIN, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John Robert Blakey United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Bernard Wasserstein sued his former employer, the University of Chicago, for allegedly breaching its fiduciary duty by altering certain faculty benefits in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. [26]. Defendant moved for summary judgment. [27]. For the reasons explained below, this Court grants Defendant's motion.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural Posture and Local Rule 56.1

         Defendant originally filed its motion as a motion to dismiss. [27]. In open court on April 5, 2018, however, this Court gave notice that it would convert Defendant's motion to one for summary judgment in light of the relevant matters beyond the pleadings presented by Defendant and central to the resolution of the issues before the Court. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d); Geinosky v. City of Chicago, 675 F.3d 743, 745 n.1 (7th Cir. 2012). As an additional factor supporting the conversion of Defendant's motion, the parties did not seek (or require) further discovery, since the issues presented turn on the interpretation of documents now properly before this Court. See Levenstein v. Salafsky, 164 F.3d 345, 347 (7th Cir. 1998) (noting that district courts have discretion in converting motions and discussing the need for discovery as one factor that courts may consider in making that determination).

         Having converted Defendant's motion, this Court granted the parties additional time to prepare responses, supplemental documents, and exhibits. See id.; [36]. This Court also exercised its discretion regarding the rules for summary judgment motions and granted Defendant's request to excuse it from presenting a statement of facts compliant with Local Rule 56.1(a), as stated in open court on April 5. See, e.g., Judson Atkinson Candies, Inc. v. Latini-Hohberger Dhimantec, 529 F.3d 371, 382 n.2 (7th Cir. 2008). In the interest of efficiency, this Court permitted Defendant to rely upon the exhibits it filed with its motion to dismiss, rather than filing a separate Local Rule 56.1 statement of facts.

         Accordingly, this Court draws the facts in this discussion primarily from the parties' exhibits and Plaintiff's statement of material facts [38]. This Court also cites Plaintiff's amended complaint [26] where that document provides contextual information not available elsewhere in the record.

         B. Plaintiff's Retirement

         Defendant hired Plaintiff as a full-time tenured professor in July 2003. [38-1] at 1. Around 2011, Defendant offered Plaintiff the opportunity to take early retirement under its Faculty Retirement Incentive Plan (FRIP). See id.; [26] ¶¶ 8- 9, 12, 51-52, 58. The FRIP offered various benefits to incentivize faculty to take early retirement. See [38-1] at 2. The only document that Defendant “provided” to Plaintiff or that he “obtained” that discussed the FRIP was Defendant's list of Frequently Asked Questions (the 2011 FAQ). Id. at 1-2; [38] ¶ 1.

         The 2011 FAQ that Plaintiff reviewed addresses a range of questions about the FRIP's terms, mainly grouped by subject matter. See [38] ¶ 2; [38-2]. On the first page, the 2011 FAQ notes that tenured faculty over age 60 could receive up to $3, 000 for retirement counseling services as they weighed their retirement decision. [38-2] at 1. In 2011, Plaintiff was approximately 62 years old. See [38-1] ¶ 3. The section of the 2011 FAQ headed “Tuition Benefits” states:

Q: Will my children continue to receive Laboratory School and college tuition benefits if I retire [under the FRIP]?
Yes, if you retire at or after age 65 with ten or more years in a full-time faculty rank, you qualify for the tuition benefit.
Q: Will my children continue to receive Laboratory School and college tuition benefits if I die before my elected retirement date?
Yes, if you die at or after age 55 with ten or more years in a full-time faculty rank, your children remain eligible for these tuition benefits.
Consult http://hrservices.uchicago.edu/benefits/tuition/ for information about the Educational Assistance Plan.

[38-2] at 2. Although this brief reference to the Educational Assistance Plan (EAP) does not expressly say so, the EAP is a separate benefits plan that Defendant offers faculty members, as discussed further below. See [29-1] (EAP); [26-4] (FRIP).

         Immediately below the Tuition Benefits section, the “General Questions” section directs the reader to contact Associate Provost Ingrid Gould with questions about the FRIP, along with other university officials. [38-2] at 2. The rest of the FAQ is split into two sections, the first addressing the FRIP's early retirement option and the second addressing the “half-time” option. See id. at 1, 5, 10. On the first page discussing the early retirement option, the 2011 FAQ includes the following question: “Q: What retirement incentives are offered under the Early Retirement Option?” Id. at 5. In answer, the FAQ lists two, bullet-pointed incentives: a bonus, and waived health insurance premiums. Id. Finally, on the last page of the 2011 FAQ, before the appendix detailing health insurance costs under the plan, a disclaimer states:

This document is intended to provide general information regarding the Faculty Retirement Incentive Plan. In the event of a discrepancy between this document and the Plan document, the Plan document will take precedence. Contact the Benefits Office (benefits@uchicago.edu) for a copy of the Plan document.

         Id. at 12. According to Plaintiff, he searched the university website and faculty handbook but did not find the plan document in either location. [38] ¶ 3. Plaintiff also met with Gould before accepting early retirement, and Gould told him that the FAQ had all the information he needed. Id. ¶¶ 4-5. Gould did not give Plaintiff a copy of the plan document, and Plaintiff left the meeting with the impression that the 2011 FAQ “set forth the terms” of the FRIP. Id. ¶¶ 5-6. Plaintiff does not claim that he ever contacted the Benefits Office to request a copy of the FRIP.

         On February 10, 2011, Plaintiff signed an “early retirement agreement, ” electing to participate in the FRIP's early retirement option. See [38-4]. By its terms, that agreement became irrevocable after seven days, and Plaintiff's retirement would go into effect in January 2014. Id. The agreement stated that Defendant would give Plaintiff “the benefits provided under the Faculty Retirement Incentive Plan (the ‘Plan') in accordance with its terms.” Id. at 1. It included an acknowledgement that Plaintiff had received “accurate and complete information” about the Plan benefits; that Plaintiff entered the agreement voluntarily, after having been advised to consult an attorney; and that Plaintiff agreed to “be bound by the terms of the Plan.” Id.

         Thus, Plaintiff's retirement agreement became irrevocable on February 17, 2011, subject to one exception: according to the FRIP, if Defendant amended the Plan “in a manner that materially affects its terms or benefits, ” Defendant had to notify plan participants who had not yet actually retired, and ...


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