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Baker v. The Ohio Operating Engineers Pension Plan

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

May 7, 2018

SHEILA K. BAKER, Executor of the Estate of Earl Wayne Arthur, Plaintiff,

          Algenon L. Marbley Judge



         This is an action for benefits under an employee benefit plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (“ERISA”). This matter is before the Court for consideration of Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to Conduct Discovery. (ECF No. 29.) For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED.


         Defendant Carol A. Wilson is the fund administrator and plan administrator of Defendant Ohio Operating Engineers Pension Plan (“Pension Plan”), an employee pension benefit plan within the meaning of ERISA. (First Amended Complaint ¶¶ 7, 9, ECF No. 15 (“Am. Compl.”).) Defendants Vic DiGeronimo, Jr., Stanley I. Roedinger, Jr., Mark Sterling, George Palko, Patrick L. Sink, Richard E. Dalton, Mark Totman, and Thomas P. Byers are current trustees of the Pension Plan (collectively, “the Trustees”). (Id. at ¶ 8.) Four of the Trustees are representatives of the International Union of Operating Engineers (“the Union”) and the remaining four Trustees are representatives of the employer association. (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) at OOE 000030, OOE 000034, OOE 000052.)[1]

         Plaintiff, Sheila K. Baker, is the executor of the estate of her decedent, Earl Wayne Arthur (“the Estate”). (Am. Compl. ¶ 4.) Mr. Arthur is a deceased former participant in the Pension Plan. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5, 12.) When he retired on May 1, 2014, Mr. Arthur elected to receive his pension benefit in a payment known as the “Normal Form” of payment, which guarantees 60 monthly payments. (Id. at ¶ 13.) At the time of his death on September 22, 2016, Mr. Arthur had received 29 of the 60 guaranteed payments under the Pension Plan. (Id. at ¶ 14.) Mr. Arthur, who was not married at the time of his death, died without surviving children, surviving parents, or surviving brothers or sisters, or a valid beneficiary designation for the payment of remaining benefits under the Pension Plan. (Id. at ¶ 15.)

         On or around November 8, 2016, the Estate submitted a claim for death benefits under the Pension Plan. (Id. at ¶ 16.) In a letter dated December 2, 2016, the Estate's claim for benefits was denied because “the Estate is not a designated beneficiary to Mr. Arthur's death benefit[.]” (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18 (internal quotation marks omitted).) The Estate appealed the denial of benefits, arguing that it was a permissible beneficiary under the Pension Plan. (Id. at ¶¶ 19- 30.)

         In a letter dated February 10, 2017, Plaintiff was advised that “the Trustees of the Pension Fund considered the appeal at their February 6, 2017 [meeting]. After discussion, the Trustees decided to deny the Appeal.” (Id. at ¶ 31 (internal quotation marks omitted).) The letter further advised that the Estate was not a “designated default beneficiary” to Mr. Arthur's death benefit and, therefore, “the estate is not entitled to the death benefit under the Pension Plan.” (Id. at ¶ 32 (internal quotation marks omitted).)

         Plaintiff filed this action on April 14, 2017, and later filed the Amended Complaint, asserting three claims. (ECF Nos. 1, 15.) Plaintiff first asserts a claim for benefits under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 38-48.) Her second claim is for breach of fiduciary duty, seeking “equitable relief of reformation” under ERISA § 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). (Id. at ¶¶ 49-62.) Plaintiff last asserts a breach of fiduciary duty claim, seeking “equitable relief of restitution” under ERISA § 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). (Id. at ¶¶ 63-66.)

         Plaintiff has moved for leave to conduct discovery on her three claims. (ECF No. 29; see also Affidavit, ECF No. 30.) Defendants have opposed Plaintiff's Motion (ECF No. 31), and Plaintiff has filed a reply in support of her request (ECF No. 33.) This matter is now ripe for resolution.


         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorize “discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Generally, discovery outside of the administrative record is not permitted in ERISA actions. Wilkins v. Baptist Healthcare Sys., Inc., 150 F.3d 609, 618 (6th Cir. 1998) (Gilman, J., concurring); see also Schwalm v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 626 F.3d 299, 308 (6th Cir. 2010) (“The court's review is thus limited to the administrative record.”). The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit previously explained that “[p]ermitting or requiring district courts to consider evidence from both parties that was not presented to the plan administrator would seriously impair the achievement of” one of ERISA's primary goals of “provid[ing] a method for workers and beneficiaries to resolve disputes over benefits inexpensively and expeditiously.” Perry v. Simplicity Eng'g, a Div. of Lukens Gen. Indus., Inc., 900 F.2d 963, 967 (6th Cir. 1990). However, courts recognize an exception “when evidence outside the record ‘is offered in support of a procedural challenge to the administrator's decision, such as an alleged lack of due process afforded by the administrator or alleged bias on its part.'” Johnson v. Connecticut Gen. Life Ins. Co., 324 Fed.Appx. 459, 466 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Wilkins, 150 F.3d at 619 (Gilman, J., concurring)). In instances involving such challenges, evidence outside the record may be relevant and discoverable. See id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1).


         As a preliminary matter, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's second and third claims on March 2, 2018, after Plaintiff's Motion was filed. (ECF No. 37.) Accordingly, as it relates to these ...

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