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McCullough v. UFCW Local 152 Retail Meat Pension Fund

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 27, 2019

DOROTHY MCCULLOUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
UCFW LOCAL 152 RETAIL MEAT PENSION FUND, Defendant.

          DANIEL JOEL SIEGEL LAW OFFICES OF DANIEL J SIEGEL LLC Attorney for Plaintiff Dorothy McCullough.

          FREDERICK M. MARX, SLEVIN & HART, P.C., STEVEN J. BUSHINSKY, W. DANIEL FEEHAN, III, O'BRIEN, BELLAND & BUSHINSKY, LLC Attorneys for Defendant UCFW Local 152 Retail Meat Pension Fund.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This is an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) case concerning the interpretation of a provision of an ERISA plan as it relates to Social Security statutes and regulations. Presently before the Court is Plaintiff Dorothy McCullough's Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendant UCFW Local 152 Retail Meat Pension Fund's (the “Fund”) Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons that follow, this Court will grant, in part, and deny, in part, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and grant, in part, and deny, in part, Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         The Court takes its facts from the parties' statements of material facts.[1] Plaintiff was an employee of Acme Markets, Inc. (“Acme”) and a member of a union, UCFW. Plaintiff began her employment at Acme on October 29, 1986. In 2011, she sustained her first work-related injury. In 2011 and 2012, Plaintiff's injury worsened to the point that she could no longer work the light-duty job to which she had been assigned. Plaintiff left Acme in December 2012. At that time, Plaintiff also filed an application for Social Security Disability Benefits (“SSDB”), claiming she was disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) determined that Plaintiff was disabled as of January 2013 via a Notice of Award on April 27, 2013 (the “Notice”). The Notice explained that her SSDB would begin in June 2013 after the statutory waiting period had elapsed.

         Plaintiff returned to work at Acme on August 13, 2013. She worked at Acme until March 3, 2014 when she sustained a second work-related injury. Plaintiff retired from Acme on April 21, 2014 when she received short-term disability benefits. Plaintiff asserts that she returned to Acme under a “period of trial work” pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 422(c).[2] Plaintiff did not lose her disability status or SSDB during that time period. But, during that time Plaintiff worked approximately forty-hour work weeks at Acme. As of October 25, 2016, a letter from the SSA shows Plaintiff was still entitled to monthly SSDB. Plaintiff officially retired from Acme on March 16, 2016.

         Plaintiff was a participant in a pension plan administered by Defendant (the “Plan”). The Plan is governed by ERISA. A part of the Plan provided participants with a Disability Retirement Pension (“DRP”) if the participant met certain requirements. Plaintiff applied for a DRP on June 7, 2016, stating her effective retirement date was March 16, 2016. (ECF No. 22, Administrative R. FUND0005.)[3]

         The Plan states the following concerning whether a member may qualify for a DRP:

A Participant who incurs a “Total and Permanent Disability” (as defined in this Section) and who has accumulated ten (10) or more years of Benefit Credit in accordance with the provisions of Article II, shall be eligible for a Disability Retirement Pension; provided, however, a Participant who incurs a “Total and Permanent Disability” (as defined in this Section) who completes one (1) or more hours of service on or after February 1, 1997 shall be eligible for a Disability Retirement Pension if such Participant has accumulated ten (10) or more years of Vesting Credit in accordance with the provisions of Article III. A Participant shall be considered to have sustained a Total and Permanent Disability if he is disabled under the definition of disability used to determine eligibility for disability benefits under the Federal Social Security Act and has been awarded a disability pension under said Act. In order to establish for Plan purposes the award of such disability pension by the Social Security Administration, the Participant must furnish to the Trustees a Certificate of Award from the Social Security Administration with a Date of Entitlement within twenty-four (24) months after the Participant's last day worked for an Employer, and the Participant must have been continuously disabled from the last day of paid employment to the Date of Entitlement stated therein. Disability shall be considered Permanent and a Participant shall be eligible for retirement upon the expiration of five (5) full months following the date of disablement; provided, however, the Participant shall not begin to receive his Disability Retirement Pension until the first day of the month following the expiration of six (6) full months from his date of disablement.

(FUND0069.)

         The Plan states the following concerning termination of a DRP:

         Payment of a Disability Retirement Pension shall be terminated:

(a) If and when the Pensioner engages in any regular gainful occupation or employment for remuneration or profit deemed significant by the Trustees under uniform nondiscriminatory rules, except for purposes of rehabilitation.
(b) If and when the Pensioner has sufficiently recovered to resume his regular gainful occupation or any other employment for remuneration or profit.
(c) If and when the Social Security Administration shall suspend the disability pension of the Pensioner previously awarded under Social Security.

(FUND0069.)

         The Board of Trustees of the Fund (the “Trustees”) have “the sole and absolute discretion to determine eligibility under the Plan and to construe and interpret provisions of the Plan.” (FUND0093.) After review by the Trustees, the Fund sent Plaintiff a letter dated July 8, 2016 awarding Plaintiff a DRP solely for the month of July 2013. (FUND0006-7.) In that letter, the Trustees determined that Plaintiff qualified for a DRP and that the six-month waiting period allowed Plaintiff to be paid a DRP effective July 1, 2013. However, because Plaintiff returned to work at Acme starting in August 2013, the Trustees determined that they must terminate Plaintiff's DRP under subsection (a) or (b) of the Plan's DRP provisions.

         Plaintiff appealed this decision on July 18, 2016. (FUND0008-0010.) In it, Plaintiff argued that she was “injured again at work” as of March 3, 2014, that she was currently entitled to a DRP, and that she was “entitled to back pension pay from the date [she] was awarded Social Security Disability.” (FUND0008.) In that letter, Plaintiff appears to state she is still receiving SSDB. (FUND0009 (“I was forced onto Medicare they just take it out of my Social Security Disability Check.”).)

         On September 16, 2016, the Trustees denied Plaintiff's appeal. (FUND0026-30.) Again, the Trustees based their decision on the fact that Plaintiff returned to work in August 2013 and advised Plaintiff her status “as ‘Totally and Permanently Disabled[]' under the Federal Social Security Act[] ended when [she] resumed employment on August 13, 2013.” (FUND0029.) Defendant advised Plaintiff that she needed to request a new determination from the SSA to regain eligibility for a DRP. (FUND0029.)

         On November 30, 2016, Plaintiff's current counsel drafted a letter to the Fund requesting reconsideration of their denial. (FUND0031-33.) In it, Plaintiff argued she has been deemed disabled by the SSA since January 2013 and that her return to work was under a “trial work period” that in no way affected her disability status or eligibility for SSDB. The Trustees responded by letter of May 5, 2017 stating “[t]he Plan does not provide an exception for trial work periods under Social Security Administration rules.” (FUND0046-47.) Further, it stated “once [Plaintiff's] 2013 Disability Benefit terminated, it could not be reinstated unless she suffered a subsequent disability for which she received a separate disability award from the Social Security Administration.” (FUND0047.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff filed her complaint on July 13, 2017 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. On Plaintiff's Motion to Transfer (based on a forum selection clause), Judge Robert F. Kelly transferred the matter to this Court for disposition. On April 26, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. On May 24, 2018, Defendant filed its response as well as its Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff filed an opposition brief. The parties agree that this is merely a review of the administrative record and that the case is governed by ERISA.

         Accordingly, these two motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         This Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         B. Standard of Review

         The parties agree this Court should review the decision of the Fund on the basis of the administrative record before it. The parties agree the standard of review is abuse of discretion, which is sometimes referred to as “arbitrary and capricious” in the ERISA context.[4] The ...


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