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Bergamatto v. Board of Trustees of Nysa-Ila Pension Fund

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 6, 2019

NICHOLAS BERGAMATTO, Appellant
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE NYSA-ILA PENSION FUND; CHARLES WARD

          Submitted Under Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) June 3, 2019

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. No. 2-16-cv-5484) District Judge: Hon. Kevin McNulty

          Samuel J. Halpern Counsel for Appellant

          Donato Caruso Ian A. Weinberger The Lambos Firm Kevin J. Marrinan John P. Sheridan Marrinan & Mazzola Mardon Kyle D. Winnick Chamberlain Hrdlicka White Williams & Aughtry Counsel for Appellees

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, JORDAN, and MATEY, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          JORDAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Nicholas Bergamatto appeals from the District Court's grant of summary judgment against him on his claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. He contends that, under his pension plan, he is entitled to more benefits than he was awarded and that ERISA allows him to sue a "de facto administrator" of the plan for failing to provide requested information. We disagree and so will affirm the judgment of the District Court.

         I. Background

         The operative facts are not in dispute. Bergamatto began working for the Port of New York and New Jersey as a longshoreman in 2000. He last worked there in April 2010. In April 2013, he applied for retirement benefits under his pension plan.

         That plan is the New York Shipping Association-International Longshoremen's Association Pension Trust Fund and Plan, a plan covered by ERISA. The 2010 version of the plan said that "[t]he provisions … in effect during the Participant's last year of credited service shall be applied to determine the Participant's right to benefits and the amount thereof." (Supp. App. at 5.) The 2010 plan also originally precluded longshoremen hired between October 1996 and September 2004 from accruing benefits for work performed before October 2004.[1] It did so by excluding from the definition of "Participant" "any employee who was not a Participant prior to October 1, 1996" and stating that:

[n]otwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Plan, any person who was first hired for employment in the longshore industry on or after October 1, 1996, and who was not a Participant as of September 30, 2004, shall be eligible to participate as a Participant in the Plan effective October 1, 2004, but shall not be entitled to accrue credited service for pension benefit accrual purposes under the Plan for any hours of employment earned prior to October 1, 2004.

(Supp. App. at 10-11.)

         In 2013, however, an amendment was made to the 2010 plan. That amendment provided that, "[e]ffective October 1, 2012, Participants hired on or after October 1, 1996 shall receive pension benefit accruals for years of credited service earned from 1996 through 2004[.]" (D. Ct. D.I. 31-3, at *173.)[2]

         The 2010 plan contained several administrative provisions. Among other things, it said that "[t]he Fund shall be administered by a Board of Trustees" (Supp. App. at 65) and that the Board had to "make available to the Fund's Participants and beneficiaries such reports and other documents as are required by ERISA" (Supp. App. at 68). It further provided that

[t]he Board of Trustees shall have sole and absolute discretionary authority (1) to determine eligibility for benefits, (2) to interpret and construe the terms and provisions of the Trust and Plan, and (3) to make factual findings in connection with applications for benefits and to make other determinations involving application of the provisions of the Trust and Plan.

(Supp. App. at 73.) Finally, it said that the Board "delegates to the Executive Pension Director … the power and authority to process and approve all non-disputed applications for pension benefits and to commence timely payments of such benefits" but that "[a]ll actions taken and decisions made pursuant to [that delegation] are subject to ratification by the Board of Trustees."[3] (Supp. App. at 73.)

         In January 2015, an updated version of the plan was produced. Like the 2010 plan, the 2015 plan contained a "last year of credited service" clause, saying that "[t]he provisions of the Plan in effect during the Participant's last Year of Credited Service shall be applied to determine the Participant's right to benefit and the amount thereof."[4] (App. at 70.) The 2015 plan also expressly incorporated the 2013 amendment to the 2010 plan, providing that, "[e]ffective October 1, 2012, Participants hired on or after October 1, 1996 shall receive pension benefit accruals for Years of Credited Service earned from 1996 through 2004." (App. at 58.) Relatedly, it eliminated the language preventing employees hired between October 1996 and September 2004 from accruing benefits for work prior to October 2004. The 2015 plan also contained the same administrative provisions from the 2010 plan that have just been noted.

         In June 2013, Bergamatto's application for pension benefits was approved by Charles Ward, Executive Director of the Fund, but based on only the years of credited service starting in October 2004. Ward reasoned that the 2010 plan required that benefit determinations be made based on the plan provisions in force during the participant's last year of credited service, that Bergamatto's last year of credited service was 2010, and that the 2010 plan terms prevented longshoremen hired between October 1996 and September 2004 - like Bergamatto - from receiving benefit accruals for work performed before October 2004.

         Bergamatto responded to Ward's decision by requesting that, in light of the 2013 amendment to the 2010 plan, his pension benefits incorporate his years of service before October 2004. A series of communications between Ward and Bergamatto ensued, which ultimately led to Bergamatto accusing Ward of failing to respond to him as required by ERISA. Specifically, Bergamatto maintained that Ward had not adequately addressed his request for the pre-October 2004 benefit accruals and for the relevant plan provisions or summary plan description.

         Bergamatto ultimately filed an appeal with the pension fund's Board of Trustees, which denied the appeal after a hearing. Its decision was based on the following reasoning: the 2015 plan "provides that the provisions of the Plan in effect during the Participant's last year of credited service shall be applied to determine the Participant's right to a benefit and the amount thereof"; Bergamatto's last year of credited service was 2010; the 2010 plan likewise "provides, with various exceptions that apply only to the amount of benefits, that the provisions of the Plan in effect during the Participant's last year of credited service shall be applied to determine the Participant's right to benefits and the amount thereof"; and the 2010 plan further "provides that … any person who was hired … on or after October 1, 1996, and who was not a Participant as of September 30, 2004, shall be eligible to participate as a Participant in the Plan effective October 1, 2004, but shall not be entitled to accrue credited service for pension benefit accrual purposes under the Plan for any hour of employment earned prior to October 1, 2004[.]'" (D. Ct. D.I. 31-3, at *206-07.)

         The Board's decision was communicated to Bergamatto, and he then filed this action under ERISA, naming the Board of Trustees and Ward as defendants.[5] He claimed first that the denial of his claim for pre-October 2004 benefit accruals was erroneous, as it was based on a misinterpretation of the plan provisions and, second, that Ward's failure to adequately respond during the parties' correspondence amounted to a violation of the statutory responsibility of the plan administrator to respond to a plan participant.[6] The defendants ultimately moved for summary judgment, which the District Court granted.

         As to Bergamatto's first claim, the Court concluded that, under the applicable "arbitrary-and-capricious standard" of review, the Board of Trustees' interpretation of the 2015 and 2010 plans was "reasonably consistent" with the plans' unambiguous language, which "makes clear that Bergamatto was not eligible for benefit accruals" for the years that he worked before October 2004. (App. at 15-16 (citation omitted).) Mirroring the Board's reasoning, the Court said that, under the 2015 plan, the terms in place during a participant's last year of credited service are controlling for purposes of benefit determinations; that Bergamatto's last year of credited service was 2010; and that, therefore, the 2010 plan governs Bergamatto's claim. It then concluded that the 2010 plan also requires that the provisions in effect during a participant's last year of credited service control. The Court said that the 2010 provisions preclude workers like Bergamatto from earning benefit accruals for years of service before October 2004, and that the 2013 amendment allowing such accruals was not in effect in 2010. It rejected Bergamatto's assertion that the "last year of credited service" clause does not apply, saying instead that "the Clause does clearly apply to such accruals." (App. at 17.) The Court also disagreed with Bergamatto's contention that Moench v. Robertson, 62 F.3d 553 (3d Cir. 1995), abrogated on other grounds by Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 573 U.S. 409, 417-19 (2014), dictated a result in his favor. According to the Court, Bergamatto's Moench argument failed because the Board's interpretation was consistent with the goals of the plan, did not render any language in the plan meaningless or internally inconsistent, did not conflict with ERISA, was not inconsistent with other Board interpretations, and was consistent with the clear language of the plan.

         As to Bergamatto's second claim - that Ward breached an obligation to respond to Bergamatto's requests for information - the District Court observed that the claim was misdirected since the plan identifies the Board of Trustees, not Ward, as the administrator. The Court rejected Bergamatto's argument "that Ward is the de facto plan administrator[, ]" reasoning that "the plain and unambiguous text of ERISA, as well as the weight of existing case law," foreclosed that argument. (App. at 20-21.) It noted that, although "[t]he Third Circuit has not yet ruled on" "whether a party can be held liable under [29 U.S.C. ยง 1132(c)(1)] under a de ...


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