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Levi v. St. Louis Teamster Brewery Workers Pension Plan

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

May 18, 2018

HUNTER R. LEVI, Plaintiff,
v.
ST. LOUIS TEAMSTER BREWERY WORKERS PENSION PLAN and ST. LOUIS TEAMSTER BREWERY WORKERS PENSION PLAN TRUSTEES, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RODNEY W. SIPPEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before me on Plaintiff Hunter Levi's claim against St. Louis Teamster Brewery Workers Pension Plan (Plan)[1] and the St. Louis Teamster Brewery Workers Pension Plan Trustees (Trustees) for additional pension benefits. Levi alleges that Defendants incorrectly determined his retirement benefits, resulting in diminished pension plan payments. Levi asserts his claim under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq. Defendants have moved for summary judgment. Because Defendants did not abuse their discretion in determining Levi's pension benefits, I will grant Defendants' motion.

         Background[2]

         Levi was a coal unloader at Anheuser-Busch (A-B) and a Local Union #367 member. Levi worked at A-B from January 8, 1979 until his last day of active work on February 14, 2003. On his last day of work his employment was suspended "with an intent to discharge" based on an altercation with his supervisor. Levi did not perform any work at A-B after his suspension. In a letter dated March 5, 2003, his suspension was formally converted into a discharge.[3" name="FN3" id="FN3">3] Levi's union challenged the discharge and the matter proceeded to arbitration. Levi claimed that his discharge was improper. However, on August 1, 2003, the arbitrator issued a summary decision determining that Levi's discharge was for just cause. The discharge became final on August 6, 2003. Levi was 47 years old at time of his discharge.

         On August 14, 2003, A-B issued a payment to Levi in the amount of $10, 366.40 for accrued vacation and sick pay. No. pension plan contributions for vacation and sick pay were deducted from this payment.

         Eight years later, in 2011, Levi asked A-B's Retirement Plans department for information regarding his pension benefits under the Plan. The Plan is administered by a Joint Board of Trustees that has four employer representatives and four union representatives (the Trustees). The Plan responded with a letter dated May 12, 2011, providing Levi with several benefit estimates based on difference commencement dates. The letter noted Levi's termination date as March 4, 2003, and February 28, 2003 as the "Credited Service" and "Date of Last [Pension] Contribution." The February 28, 2003 date reflected the last month in which Levi performed any work for A-B. The estimates calculated Levi's credited service as 24 years and 2 months based on the fact that Levi did not perform any work after February 2003. The Plan had determined that Levi's pension qualified as a "deferred vested pension" with a multiplier of $79.95, resulting in a pension of $1, 012.79 per month.

         Levi sent the Plan letters dated June 3, 2011 and September 23, 2011 raising several objections to the calculation of his estimated benefits. Levi also sent an application for pension benefits, dated September 12, 2011, which requested a benefits commencement date of December 1, 2011. The Plan responded on October 14, 2011 that his request for a higher multiplier and enhanced early retirement pension benefits were denied.

         On October 28, 2011, Levi filed an appeal to the Trustees asserting three issues: that the multiplier applicable to his pension used an incorrect date as its basis, that he qualified for an early retirement modifier, and that his discharge was illegal and thus his pension should have been calculated as though he was an employee until he elected to retire in 2011. On May 17, 2012 the Trustees denied Levi's pension appeal on all three grounds. Based on the last day that Levi had performed pensionable hours of active work at A-B (February 14, 2003) the Trustees determined that per the terms of the pension plan, Levi's Benefit Determination Date was February 28, 2003 (the last day of the month in which the last day of his employment fell). The Trustees determined that the payment issued to Levi on August 14, 2003 for accrued vacation and sick pay did not apply to the determination of this date. A-B does not include hours credited for accrued vacation and sick pay paid after an employee's termination of employment as pensionable hours for which it makes pension contributions to the Plan. The Trustees concluded that February 2003 was the final month for which contributions were made to Levi's pension plan on his behalf, as a result, he is only entitled to the multiplier in effect at the end of February 2003.

         Levi challenges Defendants' calculation of his benefits. Defendants have moved for summary judgment.

         Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Lynn v. Deaconess Medical Center, 3d 484');">160 F.3d 484, 486 (8th Cir. l998)(citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis of its motion and identifying those portions of the affidavits, pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 317');">477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). When such a motion is made and supported by the movant, the nonmoving party may not rest on his pleadings but must produce sufficient evidence to support the existence of the essential elements of his case on which he bears the burden of proof. Id. at 324. In resisting a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff has an affirmative burden to designate specific facts creating a triable controversy. Crossley v. Georgia Pacific Corp., 355 F.3d 1112');">355 F.3d 1112, 1113 (8th Cir. 2004).

         The denial of benefits under an ERISA plan is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard when the plan grants the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). Under that standard a claim fiduciary's decision will be upheld as long as it is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. Cooper v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 862 F.3d 654, 660 (8th Cir. 2017). A decision is deemed to be reasonable if a reasonable person could have reached a similar decision despite the fact that the person could also have reached a different decision. Id.

         In reviewing a plan fiduciary's decision, a court should consider whether the fiduciary's interpretation: 1) is consistent with the goals of the plan; 2) renders any language of the plan meaningless or internally inconsistent; 3) conflicts with the substantive or procedural rights granted by ERISA; 4) interprets words at issue consistently; and 5) is contrary to the clear ...


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