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Coutu v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc.

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

August 13, 2019





         Pending before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on Counts I and III. (Doc. No. 34.) Defendants Bridgestone Americas, Inc. and Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC (collectively “Bridgestone”) filed a response (Doc. No. 42), and Plaintiff filed a reply (Doc. No. 47). Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 35). Plaintiff responded to Defendants' motion (Doc. No. 44), and Defendants filed a reply (Doc. No. 48). For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED, and Defendants' motion is GRANTED in part, and DENIED in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Bernard Coutu began working for Firestone, which later merged into Bridgestone, on January 3, 1977. (Doc. No. 45 at ¶ 1.) He worked at Bridgestone's Joliette, Quebec Tire Plant from 1977 until 2005. In early 2005, Plaintiff became aware of a job opportunity to work for Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire, LLC (an entity that later became Bridgestone Americas, Inc.) in Nashville, Tennessee.

         Plaintiff was provided a written job offer stating: “You will be eligible to participate in all company benefit programs applicable to your position level in accordance with their respective plan terms.” (Doc. No. 45, ¶ 5.) Before Plaintiff accepted the position in Nashville, he inquired about the retirement benefits. (Coutu, Dep., Doc. No. 39-1 at 30-31). Danielle Roberge, a manager in the Nashville division, and Rene Barbieri, a Bridgestone human resources representative in Nashville, told Plaintiff he would receive credit in the United States for his time worked in Canada. (Id.)

         Over the years, Bridgestone has sponsored various retirement plans. (Doc. No. 45, ¶ 6.) When Plaintiff began working in Nashville, new employees were eligible to participate in a pension plan called the Cash Balance Plan - officially titled Supplement A-3 to the Salaried Employees Retirement Plan. The Cash Balance Plan replaced the previous plan, Supplement A-1, which Bridgestone closed to new participants on July 1, 2003. (Id.) Both plans are referred to as Qualified Salaried Employees Retirement Plan. (Compl., ¶ 24.)

         When Plaintiff began working in Nashville on July 1, 2005, he was provided a copy of the the A-3 Supplement and possibly the A-1 Supplement.[1] (Doc. No. 43, ¶ 4; Coutu Dep., Doc. No. 43-1 at 58.)

         The A-3 Supplement provides the following plan information:

All employees of the Employer who are classified by the Employer as United States salaried employees for Plan participation purposes … and who are hired or rehired on or after July 1, 2003, are eligible to participate in the Plan. These employees are referred to as “Covered Employees.”
Employees who on or after July 1, 2003 initially became classified as United States salaried employees of an Employer … by reasons of transfer of employment or change in job classification will also become Covered Employees.
Credited Service is used to determine the amount of your benefit. Credited Service is determined in the same manner as your Years of Service, but only includes those period[s] of time that you are a Covered Employee and a Plan Participant. (Supplement A-3, Summary Plan Description, Doc. No. 39-1 at 34-36.)

         Between 2005 and 2013, Bridgestone provided employees an online pension calculator to estimate pension benefits. (Doc. No. 43, ¶ 8.) In January 2008, after working in Nashville for approximately two years, Plaintiff attempted to run a pension estimate to calculate a benefit under the Supplement A-1 plan (Doc. No. 39-1.) The online calculator stated, “Your Plan” is the “Qualified Salaried Employees Retirement Plan, ” and showed his “ERISA service” date as July 1, 2005, and an estimated pension benefit of $0.00. (Compl., Doc. No. 27, ¶ 34.)

         Believing this information to be incorrect, Plaintiff contacted human resources by email: “Recently I was trying to use the Pension Calculator (without success} and I was told I was not eligible for that type of Pension plan. Can you look at what is wrong in the system?” (Doc. No. 39-1 at 90-91.) Cheryl Jandecka, a representative of the Bridgestone America's Holding, Inc. Pension Administration, responded that he was a participant in the Cash Balance Plan, but not the Pension Plan. (Doc. No. 39-1 at 90-91.) Plaintiff then pursued the matter with Bill Phillips, Executive Director IR & Benefits. Phillips responded:

I reviewed the e mail and investigated your offer letter. It states, “you will be eligible to participate in all company benefit programs applicable to your position level in accordance with their respective plan terms.” The plan terms for the BSAH Salaried Supplement A-3 [the Cash Balance Plan] are for people hired on or after July 1, 2003. Since you were not an employee of BFNT and your hired date was July 1, 2005 you are in the correct plan. The details and summary plan description can be found at the Team BSA web site. The pension plans are legal documents and the determination of who is covered by the plan is extremely clear. I discussed this with Fran Jones and Rene Barbieri to insure [sic] I reviewed the correct documents. I am sure this is not the answer you wanted to hear but Jandecka determination is correct and you are an eligible participant in the proper BSAH pension plan Supplement A-3 Cash Balance. (Id. at 88.)

         In 2010, Plaintiff contacted Robert McClaugherty for information about his pension benefits. McClaugherty gave Plaintiff an estimate of his current pension benefit, but did not provide him with a formal statement. (Doc. 43, ¶ 11.)

         In early 2013, the online tool showed that Plaintiff was a participant in the “Qualified Salaried Employees Retirement Plan” and had an estimated monthly accrued benefit at age 65 of $0.00. (Doc. No. 43, ¶ 9.) Believing this to be an error, Plaintiff contacted Bridgestone about his “Cash Balance Account Balance.” Bernard Kmetz, Manager, Pension and Savings Plans, responded:

As we previously discussed regarding your MyHR ticket, the Salary Cash Balance Plan account balance is posted annually to TeamBSA in December following plan year end. Your account balance was not posted due to system errors. Those errors have been corrected, but since TeamBSA is an annual posting, it will not appear there until December of this year for plan year end 10/31/2013. We anticipate some improvements to this process that you will like but too early to go into detail at this time. In order to assist you with your account balance, please be advised your 10/31/2012 account balance is estimated to be $15, 593.23. I hope you had a chance to review the Summary Plan Description that explains the percentage of earnings used to calculate the credits. We apologize for the inconvenience but hope we have satisfied your needs. I understand you may disagree with the calculation, but I am providing your estimated account balance here. (Doc. No. 39-1, 97.)

         In June 2016, Plaintiff received a written benefit statement for his Personalized Cash Balance Account, which showed his entitlement to a monthly benefit of $217 using his transfer date of July 2005. (Doc. No. 43, ¶ 13.) This was the first written benefit statement Plaintiff had received from Bridgestone, other than the online calculator estimates, since the transfer. (Id.)

         In May or June 2017, Plaintiff decided to retire from Bridgestone. He received a “retirement packet” that included a Benefit Overview listing his Credited Service date as 1/3/1977, his last hire date as 1/3/1977, and his ERISA date as 7/1/2005. (Doc. No. 43, ¶ 14.) Plaintiff completed the retirement packet and elected to receive a lump sum payment of $40, 771.70. (Doc. No. 45, ¶ 15.) Plaintiff also had available to him the retirement benefits accrued between 1977 and 2005 under two different Canadian retirement plans. (Doc. No. 45, ¶¶ 3, 15; Doc. No. 39-1 at 92-95.)

         On November 27, 2017, Plaintiff submitted an administrative claim with Bridgestone for benefits in addition to those he had accrued under the Cash Balance Plan and filed this case, asserting breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and promissory estoppel. Bridgestone administratively denied his claim and denied his appeal. (Doc. No. 45, ¶ 19.) On March 29, 2019, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on his claims for breach of fiduciary duty and wrongful termination of benefits. (Doc. No. 34). Defendant moved for summary judgment on all claims. (Doc. No. 35.)

         II. ...

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