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Files v. ExxonMobil Pension Plan

November 2, 2005


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. No. 02-cv-05374). District Judge: Honorable Garrett E. Brown, Jr.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Circuit Judge.


Argued May 11, 2005

Before: SLOVITER and FISHER, Circuit Judges, and POLLAK,*fn1 District Judge.


This case involves the pursuit of benefits from the ExxonMobil Pension Plan (formerly known as the Annuity Plan) ("Pension Plan") by the ex-wife of a now-deceased Pension Plan participant. The principal issue is whether either the Property Settlement Agreement ("PSA") entered by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division: Family Part, Ocean County ("New Jersey Court"), prior to the ex-husband's death, or an order nunc pro tunc obtained from that same court subsequent to the ex-husband's death, constitutes a Qualified Domestic Relations Order ("QDRO") pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), as amended by the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 ("REA"), see 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3). The District Court, in reliance on its broad reading of our opinion in Samaroo v. Samaroo, 193 F.3d 185 (3d Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1062 (2000), granted the Pension Plan's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the order nunc pro tunc could not create a right to survivorship benefits after the exhusband's death. As to the PSA entered before the ex-husband's death, the District Court concluded that it did not meet the statutory QDRO requirements and that any attempt to qualify that order as a QDRO after his death to provide the ex-wife with survivorship benefits was improper under Samaroo. Because we conclude that the PSA constituted a QDRO pursuant to the process contemplated within 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3), providing the ex-wife with a separate interest in the pension benefit prior to her ex-husband's death, we will reverse the District Court's order and remand for further proceedings.

I. Facts

Rita Files ("Files") married Ed Rutyna ("Rutyna") in November 1972. Rutyna worked for ExxonMobil from September 5, 1972 to April 7, 1993, and participated in two ERISA-governed plans through ExxonMobil -- the Pension Plan and a Savings Plan (formerly known as the Exxon Thrift Plan) ("Savings Plan").*fn2 When he left ExxonMobil in 1993, Rutyna had a fully-vested pension entitlement. However, since he was under fifty years of age, he was not yet eligible to receive his pension; the earliest he would become eligible would be September of 1996, on reaching fifty.

Nearly two years after Rutyna could begin receiving pension benefits, Rutyna and Files agreed to the PSA, which was incorporated into the Dual Judgment of Divorce entered by the New Jersey Court on July 16, 1998. Paragraph 3.2 of the PSA, provided in relevant part:

The Husband is the owner of an Exxon pension and Exxon . . . [Savings] Account and a TOSCO pension. Wife hereby waives, now and forever, any right, title or claim on the Husband's TOSCO pension funds. The wife shall be entitled to one-half of the Exxon pension and one-half of the Exxon . . . [Savings] Account. The transfer shall be by QDRO ["qualified domestic relations order"] as to the pension and by transfer to an account designated by the wife as to the . . . [Savings] Account.

After the PSA was entered by the New Jersey Court, Rutyna's divorce counsel, by letter dated August 16, 2000, advised the ExxonMobil Benefits Administrative Office ("Benefits Administrator") of the divorce and requested a sample QDRO "in order to distribute his Pension and . . . [Savings] fund in accordance with the terms of the divorce."*fn3 The Benefits Administrator responded, by letter dated September 16, 2000, that Rutyna's written authorization was required for the release of information. By letter dated September 18, 2000, Rutyna's divorce counsel provided Rutyna's authorization for the release of information to distribute his pension and savings accounts in accordance with the terms of the PSA. The Benefits Administrator then provided, by letter dated September 29, 2000, a Pension Plan estimate, a statement of account for the Savings Plan as of September 27, 2000, a package of materials explaining the Pension Plan's QDRO policies and practices, and a sample QDRO. An enclosed Q & A sheet entitled "Information About Thrift and Annuity Plan Benefits as Part of the Divorce Process" stated that --

Once Exxon's Benefits Accounting or Benefits Administration Office receives written notice of a divorce (either pending or final), . . . [Savings] and . . . [Pension] Plan benefits will generally be 'blocked.' If benefits are blocked, the participant may not receive them until one of the documents noted below [e.g. a divorce decree or a QDRO] is provided or 18 months has passed from the time the participant could first receive the benefits.*fn4

Indeed, following receipt of the August 16, 2000 letter from Rutyna's divorce counsel, the administrator blocked Rutyna's savings account.*fn5

But, Rutyna's divorce counsel never provided the QDRO information received from the Pension Plan to either Files or her counsel. When Rutyna died on February 25, 2001 at age 54, no QDRO had been submitted to the Pension Plan.

After Rutyna's death, a letter exchange ensued between Files and the Benefits Administrator setting forth their respective positions regarding Files's entitlement to benefits under each Plan pursuant to the PSA. Three (3) days after Rutyna's death, Files's divorce counsel notified Exxon's legal department of the death, acknowledged that no QDRO had been filed, and inquired whether the Pension Plan would honor the PSA. Files herself also notified the Plans of Rutyna's death in her capacity as executrix of his estate. The Benefits Administrator replied to Files by letter dated March 14, 2001, seeking a death certificate and stating unequivocally that as to the Pension Plan "there are no survivor benefits due and payable."*fn6 Files's new counsel (also her counsel in this appeal), then wrote to the Plans on March 31, 2001, requesting summary plan documents and asking that no distribution be made until he could determine whether the PSA met the QDRO requirements for each Plan. A week later, by letter dated April 6, 2001, Files's counsel wrote another letter, enclosing the PSA, explaining Files's position that the PSA was a QDRO as to both the Savings and ...

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