The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pisano, District Judge
Plaintiff Howard Slafer brings his one-count complaint under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1101 et seq. ("ERISA") against his former employer, Defendant Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc. ("Konica"), alleging that Konica wrongfully disregarded almost six years of his service time rendered prior to Konica's adoption of its first employee benefit plan in 1977 ("the Plan").
Slafer filed the instant complaint with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County, on or around November 8, 2006. Konica removed the action to this Court on January 19, 2007. The case was referred to an arbitrator pursuant to Local Civil Rule 201.1, and plaintiff thereafter requested a de novo trial. In the Final Pretrial Order in this case, the parties agreed to bifurcate the issues of liability and damages for trial, and further agreed to have the case decided on the administrative record as supplemented by selected deposition testimony.*fn1 The following findings of fact are taken therefrom.
After careful consideration of the extensive record before it, the Court sets forth herein its findings of facts and conclusions of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), and finds in favor of Defendant Konica.*fn2
Plaintiff Howard Slafer was an employee of Minolta Corporation ("Minolta"), Konica's predecessor,*fn3 from July 22, 1969 through February 1, 1975 ("Period I"). Minolta rehired Slafer the following year, on June 1, 1976, and Slafer voluntarily left the company on May 2, 1988 ("Period II").
Throughout Period I, Minolta had no pension plan in place for its employees. The company's first defined benefit plan established under ERISA (the "Plan"), was implemented on April 1, 1977 and was amended and restated on January 1, 1985. (Zackin Certif., Ex. A.) Under the Plan, a committee of Minolta's Board of Directors was entrusted with the authority to "control the management, operation and administration of the Plan . . . [including the duty to] construe and interpret the Plan in accordance with uniform rules and regulations[; and to] decide the eligibility of any persons to be covered under the Plan, determine the right of any person to a [retirement] Benefit, and determine the amount, manner and time of payment of any Benefit." (Zackin Certif., Ex. C § 8.03(a), (b).)
Under Section 1.08 of the original plan, for purposes of determining an employee's vesting and eligibility for benefits, "years of service" includes any year in which the participant earned 1000 hours of service after the Plan's April 1, 1977 Effective Date and "for service prior to the Effective Date[,] the latest period of service as an Employee prior to the Effective Date." (Id.) The original Plan contains no reference to breaks in service prior to the Plan's effective date, and does not define "latest period of service." However, under Section 1.39 of the Amended Plan, when determining an employee's years of service for which benefits are calculated, "[f]or years ending prior to the Effective Date, Years of Service shall include those years of service which would have constituted the latest period of service as an Employee." (Zackin Certif., Ex. A § 1.39(a).) As with the original Plan, there is no definition of a participant's "latest period of service."
There are provisions for "normal retirement" benefits and "early retirement" benefits under both versions of the Plan. (See id. § 4.02; Zackin Certif., Ex. C § 4.02.) A participant's "accrued benefit" is the total "retirement benefit" at the "normal retirement date" (i.e. the date on which the participant reaches the age of sixty-five). The "Deferred Vesting Retirement Benefit", apparently what Slafer received, is the participant's accrued benefit multiplied by a different percentage depending on the participant's years of service. For example, a participant who has earned twelve years of service would be entitled to seventy (70) percent of his or her accrued benefit. (Id. § 5.03.) The original Plan also mandates that in the event of a Plan amendment, "each Participant's vested percentage in his Accrued Benefit shall be not less than his vested percentage computed under" the original Plan. (Id. at § 4.04(a).)
B. Slafer's Second Period of Employment with Minolta
When Slafer returned to Minolta in 1976, the Plan had not yet been implemented. However, Slafer was included as a Plan participant as of the Plan's effective date, April 1, 1977. Slafer remained a Minolta employee through May 2, 1988.
After his departure from Minolta, Slafer received a letter dated November 10, 1989 from Thomas R. McVeigh, who was Minolta's Human Resources Manager at that time. In that letter, which McVeigh testified was a form letter sent to all departing employees (Zackin Certif., Ex. B at 37), McVeigh advised Slafer of his vested pension rights and included documentation supporting the calculations. (Zackin Certif., Ex. F.) These documents describe Slafer's service with Minolta as commencing on June 1, 1976 and terminating on May 2, 1988, or for Period II only. (Id.) The letter makes no reference to Slafer's Minolta ...