The opinion of the court was delivered by: LACEY
Plaintiffs in this class action
are retired employees of defendant General Motors Corporation who had been receiving retirement pension benefits from the defendant pursuant to a pension plan negotiated between the defendant and plaintiffs' union. After the plaintiffs received worker's compensation payments pursuant to New Jersey's Worker's Compensation Act,
the defendants reduced the plaintiffs' benefits under the plan by an amount equal to those payments, pursuant to Article IV, Section 2, of the plan.
The plaintiffs contend that the defendant cannot lawfully make such deductions in their pension benefits. They seek reimbursement of all pension benefits thus withheld and a permanent injunction against all such future deductions which are predicated upon the receipt of worker's compensation payments.
For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiffs are entitled to the relief they seek.
Dealing first with the issue of subject matter jurisdiction in this removed matter, 28 U.S.C. § 1441, I conclude I have such jurisdiction to decide the issues. Even were there any question about the propriety of removal by the defendant, neither side has questioned it. Since it is clear I would have had original jurisdiction over the claims presented here, a valid judgment can be entered with respect to them.
Grubbs v. General Electric Credit Corp., 405 U.S. 699, 702, 92 S. Ct. 1344, 31 L. Ed. 2d 612 (1972).
The complaint as filed alleges that the plaintiffs are retired employees of the defendant, that they have been receiving pension benefits under a Pension Plan Agreement between their union and the defendant, that they have obtained judgments entitling them to worker's compensation benefits, and that the defendant threatens to reduce their pension benefits because they have recovered worker's compensation benefits. The complaint sets forth Article IV, Section 2 of the Pension Plan Agreement:
In determining the monthly benefits payable under this Plan, a deduction shall be made Unless prohibited by law, equivalent to all or any part of Workmen's Compensation (including compromise or redemption settlements) payable to such employe by reason of any law of the United States, or any political subdivision thereof, which has been or shall be enacted, provided that such deductions shall be to the extent that such Workmen's Compensation has been provided by premiums, taxes or other payments paid by or at the expense of the Corporation, except that no deduction shall be made for the following:
(a) Workmen's Compensation payments specifically allocated for hospitalization or medical expense, fixed statutory payments for the loss of any bodily member, or 100% Loss of use of any bodily member, or payments for loss of industrial vision.
(b) Compromise or redemption settlements payable prior to the date monthly pension benefits first become payable.
(c) Workmen's Compensation payments paid under a claim filed not later than two years after the breaking of seniority. (emphasis added)
The complaint then alleges that the deductions threatened by the defendant are now in violation of a recent amendment to New Jersey's Worker's Compensation Act
which provides that:
"The right of compensation granted by this chapter may be set off against disability pension benefits or payments but shall not be set off against employees' retirement pension benefits or payments." The complaint concludes with a prayer for a permanent injunction against the threatened deductions.
Plaintiffs' action, therefore, is predicated upon an alleged breach or violation of the "unless prohibited by law" clause of the Pension Plan Agreement.
Thus they argue that, since Article IV, Section 2 of the Pension Plan Agreement bars the defendant from offsetting pension benefits against worker's compensation benefits where "prohibited by law," and the New Jersey Worker's Compensation Act embodies such a prohibition, the continued deductions violate the express provisions of the Pension Plan Agreement.
The complaint did not advance a claim founded upon a theory that the offset provision is unlawful under ERISA. That claim was first raised indirectly when plaintiffs' counsel brought to this court's attention the recently decided Utility Workers Union of America v. Consumers Power Co., 453 F. Supp. 447 (E.D.Mich. 1978). The defendant's response was not a claim of prejudice by reason of a belated addition to plaintiffs' bag of legal theories of recovery.
Instead, the defendant responded by referring the court to another case
in the same court, the Eastern District of Michigan, which was decided contrary to the Utility Workers case.
The defendant, as I have noted, admits all of the material allegations necessary to a decision on the question of whether ERISA itself bars the offset involved, including that the pension plan falls ...