United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
For Kevin Box, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Kenneth Box, Kevin Box, Individually, Katrina Evatt, Individually, Plaintiffs: Ariel S Blocker, David P Martin, Jason E Burgett, THE MARTIN LAW GROUP LLC, Tuscaloosa, AL.
For The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Defendant: Daniel L Bell, DANIEL L. BELL CO. LPA, Akron, OH; Kimberly R Ward, JACKSON LEWIS P.C., Birmingham, AL.
For The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company 1950 Pension Plan, Wingfoot Corporation, as Trustee of the 1950 Pension Plan, Defendants: Daniel L Bell, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL L. BELL CO. LPA, Akron, OH.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
This is an ERISA action. Plaintiff Kevin Box, individually and as the representative for the Estate of Kenneth Box, and plaintiff Katrina Evatt seek pension benefits under defendant Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's 1950 Pension Plan. Plaintiffs are the children of Kenneth Box. Mr. Box was an employee of Goodyear from September 5, 1975 until August 5, 2003, and he participated in the company's pension plan. On August 5, 2003, Mr. Box was shot and killed by his wife, Barbara A. Box.
At the time of his death, Mr. Box was an active Goodyear employee and was not receiving benefits under the pension plan. The Goodyear pension plan is a defined benefit plan. The plan provides a qualified pre-retirement survivor annuity (" QPSA" ) benefit for the surviving spouse of a vested plan participant who dies before he is eligible to receive his pension benefit.
Plaintiffs argue that the pre-retirement spousal benefit should be paid either to the estate of Kenneth Box or to Mr. Box's heirs because Mrs. Box is not eligible for the benefit. Goodyear agrees that Mrs. Box is not eligible for the benefit but argues that because the plan provides no contingent beneficiary for the QPSA, the pre-retirement spousal benefit is not payable
to any person, not even Mr. Box's estate or his heirs. This Court must determine whether Goodyear must pay the pre-retirement spousal benefit under the terms of the plan.
I. ERISA STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Eleventh Circuit has formulated a multi-step framework for courts reviewing an ERISA plan administrator's benefits decisions:
(1) Apply the de novo standard to determine whether the claim administrator's benefits-denial decision is " wrong" (i.e., the court disagrees with the administrator's decision); if it is not, then end the inquiry and affirm the decision.
(2) If the administrator's decision in fact is " de novo wrong," then determine whether he was vested with discretion in reviewing claims; if not, end judicial inquiry and reverse the decision.
(3) If the administrator's decision is " de novo wrong" and he was vested with discretion in reviewing claims, then determine whether " reasonable" grounds supported it (hence, review his decision under the more deferential arbitrary and capricious standard).
(4) If no reasonable grounds exist, then end the inquiry and reverse the administrator's decision; if reasonable grounds do exist, then determine if he operated under a conflict of interest.
(5) If there is no conflict, then end the inquiry and affirm the decision.
(6) If there is a conflict, the conflict should merely be a factor for the court to take into account when determining whether an administrator's decision was arbitrary and capricious.
Blankenship v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 644 F.3d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir. 2011). All steps of the analysis are " potentially at issue" when a plan vests discretion in the plan administrator to make benefits determinations. Id. at 1356, n. 7. The plaintiffs bear the burden of proving that they are entitled to ERISA benefits under the plan. Horton v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., 141 F.3d 1038, 1040 (11th Cir. 1998).
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
A. The Plan
Goodyear's plan is a " pension plan" as that term is defined in ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A). (Doc. 14-1, p. 8). The plan designates a " Pension Board" to administer the plan. (Doc. 14-9, p. 4). The plan vests the Pension Board with discretionary power over every facet of plan administration. ( Id.).
Before a claim reaches the Pension Board in the administrative review process, a plan administrator determines whether to accept or deny a claim for benefits under the pension plan. (Doc. 14-4, pp. 48-49). If a plan administrator denies a claim for pension benefits, then the claimant may appeal using the plan's administrative review process. ( Id. at 47-48). The plan's administrative review process consists of two levels. The " Benefits Review Committee" conducts the first level of review, and the Pension Board, which ...