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Bergamatto v. Trustees of Nysa-Ila Pension Trust Fund

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 18, 2017

NICHOLAS BERGAMATTO, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE NYSA-ILA PENSION TRUST FUND and CHARLES WARD, Plan Administrator, Defendants.

          OPINION

          KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.

         The plaintiff, Nicholas Bergamatto ("Bergamatto"), brings this action against the Board of Trustees of the New York Shipping Association International Longshoremen's Association Pension Trust Fund ("the Board"), and Charles Ward ("Ward") in his alleged capacity as plan administrator of the Pension Trust Fund. Bergamatto seeks to recover pension benefits under an employee pension benefit plan.[1] The plan is covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.[2] Currently before the Court is the motion of the defendants to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is denied.

         I. Background[3]

         In 2000, Bergamatto began employment as a dockworker for the New York Shipping Association ("NYSA"). (Cplt., Dkt. No. 1, ¶5) As a result of his employment, he became a member of the International Longshoremen's Association ("ILA"}. [Id.)

         From 2000 to 2003, Bergamatto did not participate in his employer's pension plan, the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund, but instead participated in an annuity program. (Id.) In 2004, however, Bergamatto became a participant in the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund. (Id. ¶6)

         According to Bergamatto, on April 23, 2010, the Waterfront Commission suspended his waterfront pass, thereby leaving him unable to work. (Id. ¶7) About six months later, on October 27, 2010, Bergamatto injured his rotator cuff, an injury which, he says, rendered him temporarily disabled. (Id.) At the time, Bergamatto had a "full expectation to return to work . . . upon the lifting of his suspension and restoration of his waterfront pass." (Id. ¶8; see ¶ 17) However, the suspension of his waterfront pass was never lifted. (Id.) Effective April 21, 2013, Bergamatto retired at age 66. (Id.)

         Before Bergamatto's retirement, NYSA and ILA had entered into a collective bargaining agreement which, in part, provided that pension participants hired after October 1996 would receive credit for pension benefit accruals based on years worked from 1996 to 2004. (Id. ¶9) On May 2, 2013, the Board amended the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund's January 7, 2010 Agreement and Declaration of Trust and Plan to incorporate that new provision, effective October 1, 2012. (Dkt. No. 8-2, at 7 to 8)

         Based on the new Plan provision, Bergamatto requested benefit accruals for the years 2000 through 2004. (Cplt. ¶9) His request was denied because he did not have any work hours in 2012, when the new Plan provision took effect. That was Bergamatto's last full year before his retirement. (Id.)

         On July 10, 2014, Bergamatto, through counsel, appealed that decision to Charles Ward, the "designated Plan Administrator of the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund", by sending a letter through certified mail. (Id. ¶2, 10; Dkt. No. 11-2, Ex. B) In his letter, Bergamatto requested a copy of "the pertinent [NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund] provisions or operative summary plan description." (Id. ¶IO) The letter was received on July 16, 2014. (Id.)

         On November 12, 2014, Bergamatto, again through counsel, sent a second letter to Ward. (Id. ¶l 1; Dkt. No. 11-2, Ex. C) In that letter, Bergamatto stated that Ward did not respond to his first letter. (Id.) He also informed Ward that he "had already incurred $9500.00 in penalties pursuant to 29 U.S.C.A. sec. 1132(c)(1)." (Id.)

         Two days later, on November 14, 2014, Ward sent Bergamatto's counsel a copy of a letter dated July 25, 2014, that Ward had sent to Bergamatto. (Id. ¶12; Dkt. No. 11-2, Ex. D) In that earlier letter, Ward had denied Bergamatto's benefit request "on the basis of Article V, Section 1 of the Plan." (Id.) He explained that because Bergamatto's last year of credited service was 2010, he was no longer a Plan participant when he applied for the 2000 to 2004 benefit accrual. (Id.)

         On November 21, 2014, Bergamatto, through counsel, "rejected Ward's response as untimely", and reiterated his request for a copy of the summary plan description. (Id. ¶13; Dkt. No. 11-2, Ex. D) On December 2, 2014, Ward sent Bergamatto a copy of the 2010 summary plan description, as well as Bergamatto's work record. (Id. ¶14)

         About one month later, on January 6, 2015, Bergamatto, through counsel, appealed Ward's denial of benefits to the Board. (Id. ¶15) The Board held a hearing on June 18, 2015. (Id.; see Dkt. No. 8-2, at 10 to 15)

         At some point before the appeal hearing, the Board Secretary sent Bergamatto a letter regarding the $7, 693.71 that Bergamatto received in temporary disability benefits from the NYSA-ILA Accident and Health Plan because of his rotator cuff injury. (Id. ¶16; Ex. A to 11-1) The letter stated that the benefits were paid in error because Bergamatto's waterfront pass was revoked at the time. [Id.) The letter requested that Bergamotto refund those benefits. (Id.)

         Bergamatto asserts that his pass was "never revoked but only suspended." (Id.) "Under the rules of the Waterfront Commission", Bergamatto says, "the pass can only be revoked after a hearing." (Id.)

         On July 29, 2015, the Board affirmed Ward's decision. (Id. ¶18; see Dkt. No. 8-2 at 18 to 19) The Board's affirmance did not address the demand for a refund of erroneously paid temporary disability benefits. (Id. ¶18; see Dkt. No. 8-2 at 18 to 19)

         On September 9, 2016, Bergamatto filed this action pursuant to ERISA section 502, 29 U.S.C. §1132(e)(1). [Id. ¶4) The Complaint alleges 1) wrongful denial of accrued benefits, and 2) statutory penalties for disclosure violations. (Id. ¶¶ 20-23)

         Defendants, the Board and Ward, filed this joint motion to dismiss the Complaint on December 2, 2016. (ECF no. 8) In connection with the motion, the Board and Ward also submitted an affidavit from counsel and six exhibits. (ECF no. 8-2; ECF no. 8-2 Ex. 1 to 6).

         On January 23, 2017, counsel for Bergamatto filed a brief "in opposition to motion for summary judgment."[4] (ECF no. 11-3) He also filed an affidavit from his client, Bergamatto, and a certification from himself in support of the motion. (ECF nos. 11-1 and 11-2)[5] Bergamatto's affidavit attached one exhibit, and his counsel's certification attached six. (ECF no. 11-1, Ex. A; ECF no. 11-2, Ex. A to F).

         On February 3, 2017, the Board and Ward submitted a reply memorandum of law in support of their motion to dismiss. (ECF no. 14)

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Rule ...


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