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Bergamatto v. Board of Trustees of NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 12, 2018

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

          OPINION

          Hon. Kevin McNulty United States District Judge.

         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]

         Defendants now move for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, that motion is granted.

         I. Background

         I previously considered this case in the context of defendants' motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Bergamatto v. Bd, of Trustees of NYSA-JL A Pension Tr. Fund, No. CV 16-5484 (KM), 2017 WL 4155225 (D.N.J. Sept. 18, 2017). Familiarity with that opinion, which relates the background of the litigation and the allegations of the complaint, is assumed.

         A. Procedural History

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

         Defendants, the Board and Ward, filed a joint motion to dismiss the Complaint on December 2, 2016. (ECF no. 8). I denied that motion by Order and Opinion filed September 18, 2017. (ECF nos. 19, 20).

         On October 2, 2017, Defendants filed an Answer to Bergamatto's Complaint, including Affirmative Defenses. (ECF no. 23).

         On February 23, 2018, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. (ECF no. 31). On April 12, 2018, Bergamatto filed a brief in opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (ECF no. 36). On April 25, 2018, Defendants filed a reply brief. (ECF no. 39).

         B. Relevant Facts[3]

         In 2000, Bergamatto began employment as a dockworker with employers affiliated with the New York Shipping Association ("NYSA"). (DSMF ¶ 3; Bergamatto Aff. ¶ 2). As a result of his employment, he became a member of the International Longshoremen's Association ("ILA"). (Bergamatto Aff. ¶ 2.)

         From 2000 to 2003, Bergamatto did not participate in his employer's pension plan, the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund ("Fund"), a "joint labor-management trust fund established in or about 1950 to administer a multiemployer pension benefit plan [.]" (Id.; DSMF ¶ 1; Ward Aff. ¶ 4). Instead, during that time, he participated in an annuity program. (Bergamatto Aff. ¶ 2.) In 2004, however, Bergamatto became a participant in the Fund. (Id.)

         According to Bergamatto, on April 23, 2010, the Waterfront Commission suspended his waterfront pass, thereby leaving him unable to work.[4](Bergamatto Aff. ¶ 3). About six months later, on October 27, 2010, while still suspended, Bergamatto injured his rotator cuff, an injury which rendered him temporarily disabled. (Id.) He received temporary disability benefits and at die time, expected to return to work following the lifting of his suspension. (Id.) However, the suspension of his waterfront pass was never lifted. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Thereafter, in April 2013, Bergamatto submitted his application for retirement benefits in-person to Charles Ward, the Executive Director of the Fund. (Id.; Ward. Aff. ¶¶ 2, 9; DSMF ¶ 4; Ward Dep. 6:9.) According to Ward, at that meeting, he provided Bergamatto with a copy of the February 2010 "Summary Plan Description of the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund and Plan." (Ward. Aff. ¶ 9). See (Summary Plan Description, ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 1).

         Before Bergamatto's retirement, in April 2013, NYSA and ILA had entered into a collective bargaining agreement for the Port of New York and New Jersey 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. See (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 5, NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund and Plan Secretary's Certificate at 1)("[e]ffective October 1, 2012, Participants hired on or after October 1, 1996 shall receive pension benefit accruals for years of credited service earned from 1996 through 2004 [.]"). On May 2, 2013, the Board amended the NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund's January 7, 2010 Agreement and Declaration of Trust and Plan ("2010 Plan") to incorporate that new provision, which by its terms was effective October 1, 2012. (Id. at 1; DSMF ¶ 5).

         By letter dated June 20, 2013, Ward informed Bergamatto that effective July 1, 2013 and retroactive May 1, 2013" he was approved to receive pension benefits. (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 2). Ward made that determination based on the terms of the 2010 "Agreement and Declaration of Trust and Plan of the New York Shipping Association-International Longshoremen's Association Pension Trust Fund and Plan." (Ward. Aff. ¶ 11). See (2010 Plan, ECF No. 31-3, Exh. 3) (providing copy of the "Agreement and Declaration of Trust and Plan of the New York Shipping Association-International Longshoremen's Association Pension Trust Fund and Plan," which was amended and restated on January 7, 2010).

         Ward signed the letter and the typed signature line indicates that Ward is the Executive Director of the Fund. (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 2.) The next month, on July 21, 2013, Bergamatto, through counsel, submitted a "Dear Sir or Madam" letter to the Fund requesting pension credit for his years of service from 2001 to 2004 pursuant to the May 2, 2013 Amendment. (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 6). By letter dated July 25, 2013, Ward responded on behalf of the Fund and rejected Bergamatto's request. (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 7). Ward's letter states:

The NYSA-ILA Pension Trust Fund and Plan states as follows:
Article I, Section 2:
The provisions of the Plan in effect during the Participant's last year of credited service shall be applied to determine the Participant's right to benefits and amounts thereof.
Since Mr. Bergamatto's last year of credited service was 2010, prior to the effective date of the contractual provision, he would not be entitled to credited service for the years prior to 2005.
This decision may be appealed to the Board of Trustees, NYSA-ILSA Pension Trust Fund, 77 Water Street, 16 Floor, New York, NY 10005.

(Id.) Ward signed the letter as Executive Director of the Fund. (Id.)

         Nearly a year later, Ward received a letter dated July 10, 2014 from new counsel for Bergamatto. (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 8.) The letter, directed specifically to Ward, reiterated Bergamatto's July 2013 request for pension credit for die years 2001 through 2004. (Id.) It explained that based on documents counsel had in his possession, "which include[d]" a March 13, 2013 memorandum from the President of the ILA and a Settlement of Local Conditions for New NYSA-ILA CBA as of March 13, 2013, Bergamatto was entitled to that credit. (Id.) It stated: "I presume that the aforementioned documents are an accurate representation of the amendments to the NYSA-ILA Plan and summary plan description (SPD). If they are in any way inconsistent with same, I would appreciate your forwarding me copies of the pertinent Plan or SPD amendments in accordance with 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1021(a)." (Id.)

         According to Ward, he "had no idea" what documents counsel had in his possession, "as he never specified what documents he had." (Ward Aff. ¶ 21). Ward "assumed that the 2010 SPD was in [counsel's] possession, as [Ward] had given a copy to Mr. Bergamatto on April 25, 2013." (Id.) Ward interpreted the letter "as not raising a problem of inconsistent documents, but as [counsel] misunderstanding the 2010 Plan itself." (Id.)

         In a letter dated July 25, 2014, which was addressed to counsel for Bergamatto, Ward referenced and quoted the Plan's Pension Determination Clause, which stated: "[t]he provisions of the Plan in effect during the Participant's last year of credited service shall be applied to determine the Participant's right to benefits and the amount thereof." (ECF no. 31-3, Exh. 9) (emphasis added). He concluded:

Mr. Bergamatto's last year of credited service was 2010. Therefore, he was not eligible for any provision under the contract effective October 1, 2012.
You may dispute this decision by appeal to the Board of Trustees, NYSA-ILSA Pension Trust Fund, 77 Water Street, 16t ...

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