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Pugh v. El Paso Corporation Pension Plan

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 28, 2014

RENEE PUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
EL PASO CORPORATION PENSION PLAN; and THE PENSION COMMITTEE OF EL PASO CORPORATION PENSION PLAN, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ABDUL K. KALLON, District Judge.

Renee Pugh ("Ms. Pugh") is the recipient of a 50% Joint and Survivor Benefit under a retirement plan in which she and her former husband were participants. In her lawsuit against El Paso Corporation Pension Plan and the Pension Committee of El Paso Corporation Pension Plan ("El Paso"), Ms. Pugh is alleging that El Paso wrongfully denied her an additional 75% Retiree Survivor benefit. See doc. 1 at 1-8. El Paso denies that it has engaged in any wrongdoing and has filed a motion for summary judgment, docs. 18, 20, which is fully briefed and ripe for review, see docs. 22, 24, 25. Based on a review of the evidence and the law, the court finds that the motion is due to be granted because Ms. Pugh has not shown that El Paso's interpretation of the retirement plan was de novo wrong or, alternatively, that El Paso's interpretation was unreasonable and not made in good faith.

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56 "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to "go beyond the pleadings" to establish that there is a "genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). Any factual disputes will be resolved in Plaintiff's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports Plaintiff's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, "mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion." Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, "[a] mere scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party." Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252)).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. The Sonat, Inc. Retirement Plan

Ms. Pugh's former husband worked for Sonat, Inc. and was a participant in the Sonat, Inc. Retirement Plan ("the Plan"). The Plan, which was merged with The El Paso Corporation Pension Plan on January 1, 2000, doc. 19-1 at 3, is a defined benefits program, doc. 19-4 at 53. Contributions to the pension fund are made by Sonat and other participating companies, which do not pay pensioners out of their respective general funds. Doc. 19-2 at 29-30. Administration of the Plan, the sole power to interpret the Plan, and the responsibility of carrying out the Plan provisions are vested in a committee of at least three members. Id. at 31.

At issue here are the Retirement or Vested Benefit and the Retiree Survivor Benefit provisions of the Plan, and, in particular, what it means to qualify as an "Eligible Spouse." Article 6.02(b) defines the Retirement or Vested Benefit and supplies a provision for Participants that are married:

The form of Retirement or Vested Benefit payable to a Participant who has a Spouse at the time such Benefit commences shall be a benefit payable monthly for the life of the Participant, with a monthly benefit equal to 50% of the Participant's monthly benefit payable to the Participant's surviving spouse after the Participant's death for the rest of such Spouse's lifetime (the "Joint and Survivor Form"). For purposes of this Section and Section 6.03, the term "Spouse" shall mean the person who was married to the Participant at the date the Participant's Benefit commences under the laws of the State where the marriage was contracted.

Id. at 22. Article 7 provides a Retiree Survivors Benefit to "Eligible Family Members:"

[U]pon the death of a participant who is both a Retired Employee and receiving or eligible to receive a Retirement Benefit... from the Plan at the date of his death, the Participant's Eligible Family Members shall be entitled to receive a monthly benefit (a "Retiree Survivors Benefit") equal to 75% of the Retirement benefit being paid to the Participant under the Plan at the date of the Participant's death.

Id. at 27. "Eligible Family Members" is defined in Article 1 as "[t]he Eligible Spouse or Eligible Child of a deceased Participant, " id. at 6, and an "Eligible Spouse" is

[t]he husband or wife of a deceased Participant, who (i) was married to the Participant under the laws of the State where the marriage was contracted at least one year prior to the date of his death, (ii) is not a party to a court action for judgment of separation or decree of divorce pending at the time of the ...

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