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Brooks v. Boilermaker-Blacksmith Union National Pension Trust

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

January 31, 2017



          BARBARA D. HOLMES United States Magistrate Judge

         To: The Honorable Kevin H. Sharp, Chief District Judge

         Currently pending are cross motions for judgment on the record filed, respectively, by Defendant Boilermakers-Blacksmith Union National Pension Trust (“Defendant” or “the Trust”) and Plaintiff Jeffrey Brooks (“Plaintiff” or “Brooks”). Docket Entry Nos. “DE” 9, 11. Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition to Defendant's motion (DE 14), to which Defendant has filed a subsequent reply. DE 15. Defendant has also filed a response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion. DE 13. Both motions have been referred to the Magistrate Judge for report and recommendation. DE 12.

         For the reasons that follow, the undersigned Magistrate Judge respectfully recommends that Defendant's motion (DE 9) be GRANTED and that Plaintiff's motion (DE 11) be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This matter involves Plaintiff's claim for long-term disability benefits pursuant to an employment benefit plan administered by Defendant. Plaintiff initially filed his complaint in the Chancery Court of Stewart County, Tennessee, and invoked jurisdiction pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1332(e)(1), which holds, in pertinent part, that state courts and U.S. district courts “shall have concurrent jurisdiction of actions” that seek recovery of benefits under the terms of a plan that is subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq. Defendant removed the action to this Court, however, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446, [1] based on the doctrine of preemption:

[W]hen a federal statute wholly displaces the state-law cause of action through complete pre-emption, the state claim can be removed … This is so because [w]hen the federal statute completely pre-empts the state-law cause of action, a claim which comes within the scope of that cause of action, even if pleaded in terms of state law, is in reality based on federal law … ERISA is one of these statutes.

Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207-08, 124 S.Ct. 2488, 2495, 159 L.Ed.2d 312 (2004) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         As an initial matter, the Court notes that Plaintiff's complaint alleges state law claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment. See Plaintiff's Complaint (DE 1-1) at 3, 8. However, as noted by Defendant, claims that seek benefits pursuant to a plan that is governed by ERISA, such as the instant one, are preempted by ERISA and subject to federal law. See Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 62-63, 107 S.Ct. 1542, 1546, 95 L.Ed.2d 55 (1987) (“[A]s a suit by a beneficiary to recover benefits from a covered plan, it falls directly under § 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA, which provides an exclusive federal cause of action for resolution of such disputes.”) (internal citation omitted); see also Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 54, 107 S.Ct. 1550, 95 L.Ed.2d 39 (1987) (“The policy choices reflected in the inclusion of certain remedies and the exclusion of others under the federal scheme would be completely undermined if ERISA-plan participants and beneficiaries were free to obtain remedies under state law that Congress rejected in ERISA.”). Indeed, the purpose of ERISA is “to completely preempt the area of employee benefit plans and to make regulation of benefit plans solely a federal concern.” Cromwell v. Equicor-Equitable HCA Corp., 944 F.2d 1272, 1276 (6th Cir. 1991) (internal citation omitted).

         Plaintiff's complaint specifically seeks benefits that were denied pursuant to a pension plan administered by Defendant. DE 1-1 at 8.[2] Preemption under ERISA applies broadly to state law claims that “relate to” employment benefit plans, specifically when (1) Congress has indicated an intent to “occupy the field, ” and (2) Congress has provided a remedy for the alleged wrong. Perry v. P*I*E Nationwide Inc., 872 F.2d 157, 160 (6th Cir. 1989) (internal citations omitted). Congress has clearly intended for ERISA to “occupy the field, ” see Pilot Life, supra, and Plaintiff seeks redress by way of an award of benefits pursuant to an employment benefit plan administered by Defendant. DE 1-1 at 8. Plaintiff's claims are therefore subject to § 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA, which states that a civil action may be brought by a participant to an ERISA-governed plan “to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B).

         Plaintiff does not advance his state law claims in either his motion for judgment on the record or his response to Defendant's motion for judgment on the record. The Court assumes that Plaintiff has elected not to pursue his initial state law claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment based on the preemption doctrine discussed above. Regardless, the Court finds that such state claims are preempted by ERISA, and will therefore review Plaintiff's cause of action exclusively under § 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA, the only avenue under which he may pursue his claim.[3]

         The facts of this case are straightforward. Defendant is a “trust fund established and jointly maintained by a labor union and contributing employers for the purpose of providing pension benefits” to eligible participants according to the terms of a written plan. DE 10 at 3. The plan under which the benefits are administered is known as the Twelfth Restatement of the Pension Plan Document (“Twelfth Restatement” or “the Plan”). See Transcript of the Administrative Record at BNF 00001-00137.[4] The Twelfth Restatement provides that an employee becomes a participant in the plan once he or she has completed one hour of “Covered Employment, ” which is defined as “work for which your Employer is required to make Contributions to this Plan under a Participation Agreement or a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the International Union, affiliated districts, or Local Lodges.” BNF 00150.[5]

         Under Section 4.09 of the Twelfth Restatement, a participant in the Plan is entitled to receive a disability pension if he becomes “totally and permanently disabled prior to attaining age 65” and the participant:

(a) Has been awarded a Social Security Disability Benefit under Title II of the Social Security Act, a Social Security Supplemental Income Award for disability …;
(b) Has credited to his account at least 1, 000 Hours of Work in Covered Employment …;
(c) For a participant whose application for a Disability Pension is postmarked or submitted to the Fund Office on or after October 1, 2008, has at least 120 Hours of Work in Covered Employment either in the Plan Credit Year in which he became totally and permanently disabled or in the immediately preceding Plan Credit Year; and
(d) Has filed a written application for benefits with the Fund Office in accordance with Section 8.01, together with a notice of award of disability benefits from the Social Security Administration ….

BNF 00032-00033.

         Plaintiff was a boilermaker who participated in the Trust from 2002 to 2007, which included a significant number of Covered Employment hours during that period: 1, 138 hours in 2002; 1, 714.4 hours in 2003; 2, 240.75 hours in 2004; 619.5 hours in 2005; and, 341.5 hours in 2006. DE 10 at 3; BNF 00276. Plaintiff also “received payment” for 656 hours of Covered Employment in 2007. Id.

         On December 9, 2006, Plaintiff suffered a severe injury while working at a job for Frank Lill & Son, Inc. when a piece of steel ductwork weighing approximately 40, 000 pounds fell on him. DE 11 at 1; DE 10 at 3. He was transported by life flight to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he was treated for a displaced sacral fracture, multiple pelvic ring fractures, a severed urethra, and bladder dysfunction. DE 11 at 1-2. Over the next four years, Plaintiff underwent extensive treatment that included multiple surgeries and other operations. Id. at 2.

         Following the injury, Plaintiff began receiving workers' compensation benefits. Id. His treating physician, Dr. Douglas Milam, opined that Plaintiff reached maximum medical improvement (“MMI”) on August 18, 2010, but later revised this to October of 2010. Id. On January 20, 2012, a workers' compensation settlement agreement pertaining to Plaintiff's injuries was entered in the state Circuit Court for Houston County, Tennessee. BNF 00336-00344.

         On October 21, 2010, Plaintiff applied for Social Security disability benefits relating to the injuries he sustained on December 9, 2006. DE 11 at 3; BNF 00444. Plaintiff eventually appeared for a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Elizabeth Neuhoff on March 14, 2013, and was subsequently granted Social Security disability benefits on March 22, 2014. Id. Of note, although the benefits pertained to the injuries he sustained on December 9, 2006, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date of disability ...

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