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Richardson-Roy v. Fidelity Investments

United States District Court, D. Delaware

April 1, 2015

FIDELITY INVESTMENTS, et al., Defendants.

Marva Jane Richardson-Roy, Newark, Delaware. Pro Se Plaintiff.

Lori Ann Brewington, Esquire, Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, and Robyn L. Anderson, Esquire, Lathrop & Gage LLP, Kansas City, Missouri. Counsel for Defendant General Motors LLC.


RICHARD G. ANDREWS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Marva Jane Richardson-Roy, who appears pro se, filed this action on March 24, 2014 pursuant to the Employment Retirement Security Income Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., and the Pension Protection Act of 2006, seeking an "award and rightful claim to her portion of the pension of her former, now deceased, spouse, " Howard N. Richardson. (D.I. 1, ¶ 1). The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Defendant General Motors LLC moves for summary judgment. (D.I. 18). Plaintiff opposes. The matter is fully briefed. (D.I. 19, 20, 21, 22).


On March 10, 1994, Plaintiff and Howard divorced. (D.I 19-1 at 4). At the time of the divorce, Howard was employed by General Motors Corporation. ( Id. at 40). In 1994, Howard notified his employer of the divorce decree and canceled Plaintiff's dependent health care coverage. ( Id. at 2). Howard retired four years later. He elected to begin pension benefits under the General Motors Hourly-Rate Employees Pension Plan, effective August 1, 1998, with survivor spouse coverage for his then-wife, Cheryl L. Richardson. ( Id. at 5). Howard died on January 4, 2010. (D.I. 3, ¶ 8). Cheryl's surviving spouse benefits began the following month in February 2010. (D.I. 19-1 at 61). The Plan states, "In no event may an election for survivor benefits be made or changed after the death of the employee.[1] (D.I. 19-2 at 11 [§ 10(k)]).

Two months after Howard died, on March 16, 2010, Plaintiff obtained a "Qualified Domestic Relations Order" ("QDRO") from the Family Court of the State of Delaware in and for New Castle County. (D.I. 19-1 at 7-10). On March 20, 2010, Plaintiff submitted the order to the Plan for review and qualification. ( Id. at 6). The March 16, 2010 order was the first domestic relations order submitted to the Plan for review and qualification.[2] It did not purport to be an amendment or modification to any prior domestic relations order, and it was not entered on a nunc pro tunc basis. ( Id. at 7-10).

The March 16, 2010 order identified Plaintiff as Howard's former spouse and "alternate payee" and purported to grant her a "separate interest" award ( i.e., a portion of Howard's accrued benefit as of the date of his benefit commencement, to be paid for the duration of Plaintiff's life without regard to the death of Howard). ( Id. at 7-8 & ¶ 9). The order denied Plaintiff's entitlement to any part of any early retirement subsidy, early retirement supplement, interim supplement, temporary benefit or post-retirement increases, and it stated that Plaintiff would not be treated as the surviving spouse for Howard's Qualified Joint and Survivor Annuity should he (as he did) die after commencing benefits. ( Id. at ¶¶ 10-12, 19). The Plan provides that an alternate payee's separate interest award will result in a permanent reduction to the surviving spouse benefits. (D.I. 19-2 at 51 ¶ E.3.). The March 16, 2010 order provides that the Plan must make a determination of the qualified status of the order, and that, in the event of a conflict between the terms of the order and the Plan, the terms of the Plan prevail; and that nothing in the order could be construed to require the Plan to provide any type or form of benefit or option not otherwise available under the Plan, including, without limitation, increased benefits. (D.I. 19-1 at 7, 10).

Pursuant to the Plan, GM is responsible for the Plan administration and is granted all powers necessary to carry out its provisions, including the establishment of rules for the administration of the Plan. (D.I. 19-2 at 21 [Art. VI]). GM established written QDRO approval guidelines and procedures and delegated Fidelity Workplace Services LLC the authority to determine whether domestic relation orders relating to the Plan are qualified. ( Id. at 47-81).

Fidelity acknowledged receipt of Plaintiffs order and informed her that the QDRO guidelines could be accessed online or by calling the GM Benefit Center. (D.I. 19-1 at 15). On April 21, 2010, Fidelity advised Plaintiff in writing that it had determined that the March 16, 2010 order could not be qualified. (D.I. 3 at 15). The letter explained that Howard's benefit had terminated with his death and that there was no remaining lifetime benefit that could be paid to Plaintiff. ( Id. ). The letter further explained that the post-retirement survivor annuity had vested in the new spouse and could not be reassigned. ( Id. ). Fidelity concluded that, under the circumstances, the order must be non-qualified. ( Id. )

On May 1, 2010, Plaintiff disputed the non-qualification determination and argued that Howard's death should have no effect on the validity of the order. (D.I. 19-1 at 16-24). On May 4, 2010, Fidelity replied, stating that the order could not be qualified because there was no remaining benefit that could be assigned, as Howard's lifetime benefit had terminated with his death, and the remaining surviving spouse benefits vested in Cheryl could not be re-assigned. ( Id. at 25).

Plaintiff responded to the denial on May 14, 2010. ( Id. at 26). Plaintiff argued that the order created her right to a divided share of Howard's benefit and that it was immaterial that he had remarried, elected joint and survivor benefits in favor of Cheryl, retired, been paid twelve years of benefits, and then died. ( Id. at 26-33). She emphasized that her claim had "nothing whatsoever" to do with Cheryl's survivor spouse benefits. ( Id. at 26). On June 1, 2010, Fidelity replied, explaining that Howard's benefit could not be divided and assigned pursuant to the March 16, 2010 order because his benefit interest terminated with his death in January 2010. ( Id. at 35). Fidelity stated that it had confirmed with GM that there was no record of a prior domestic relations order that would evidence an intent to assign Howard's pension benefit interest to Plaintiff before that interest was terminated. ( Id. ) Fidelity advised Plaintiff that if she had correspondence to the contrary to forward it at her earliest convenience. ( Id. ) Fidelity considered the matter "closed." ( Id. ).

Nothing further happened for more than two years. On January 3, 2013, however, Plaintiff renewed the correspondence, seeking to challenge Fidelity's April 21, 2010 non-qualification decision on the ground that the domestic relations order was a "property settlement" that was not about death or survivor benefits. ( Id. at 37). Plaintiff argued "there is no [statute] of limitation." ( Id. ). Fidelity responded on GM's behalf on January 17, 2013, stating that there was no QDRO on file with the Plan at the time of Howard's death; that Howard's benefit rights ceased with his death; and that, although the Plan did provide a survivor benefit, that benefit was vested in Cheryl, and there were no further benefits to be paid. ( Id. ).

Defendant seeks summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) Plaintiff's claims are time-barred, or, in the alternative, that the Court should affirm the non-qualification determination; and (2) ...

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