United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
case arises from an ERISA dispute over the terms of a pension
plan (the “Plan”). Before the Court is Defendant
Goodyear Pension Plan's (“Goodyear”) Motion
for Judgment as a Matter of Law (the “Motion”).
(Doc. 13). Plaintiff Loyd Watkins (“Watkins”)
responded to the Motion. (Doc. 16). Goodyear replied. (Doc.
24). Accordingly, this Motion is ripe for review.
Plan is a "pension plan" as that term is defined in
ERISA. 29 U.S.C. §1002(2)(A). The Plan expressly
designates the "Pension Board" to administer the
The administration of the Plan shall be by a Pension Board of
five officers and/or employees of the Company, at least three
of whom shall be officers. Members of the Pension Board shall
be responsible to the Board of Directors of the Company. The
Pension Board shall have the authority to elect its own
chairman and secretary and to appoint an administrator of the
Plan to whom the powers of the Pension Board may be
specifically delegated. The Pension Board may adopt by-laws
and regulations for the administration of the Plan not
inconsistent therewith. Any act or decision of the Pension
Board shall require the concurrence of a majority of its
(Stipulated Administrative Record (“SAR”) (Doc.
10) at 34). The Plan vests the Pension Board with
discretionary power over every facet of Plan administration:
The Pension Board shall have all such power and authority as
may be necessary to carry out the provisions of the Plan,
including discretionary power and authority to interpret
and construe the Plan and to resolve any disputes arising
thereunder subject to the provisions of Paragraph 8 and
9 of this Article II and the power and authority expressly
conferred upon it herein. The Pension Board shall have
authority to grant such pensions or other benefits as are
provided under the Plan and to take such further action as it
shall deem advisable in the administration of the Plan in
accordance with its terms.
(SAR at 34)(emphasis added). The Pension Board and the ERISA
Appeals Committee ("EAC") are one and the same body
and are interchangeable. (Affidavit of Shawn Breon
“Breon Aff.” at p. 2, ¶3 (Exhibit 1 of
Evidentiary Submission)). Other than the name, there is no
distinction between the EAC and the Pension Board. (Exh. 1 at
p. 2, ¶¶3-5). They are not different bodies and do
not act independently of one another. (Exh. 1 at p. 2,
¶4). The Plan's administrative review process
consists of two levels: the first level of review is
conducted by the "Benefits Review Committee" with
the second and final level of review conducted by the
EAC/Pension Board. (SAR at 9-10 & 26-28; Exh. 1 at p. 2,
Watkins, age 86, is a 33 year employee of Goodyear who
retired on June 18, 1991. (Doc. 16 at 1 ¶1); (Doc. 24 at
2 ¶1). At the time of his retirement and commencement of
pension benefit, Watkins was married to First Wife (Inez
Watkins). (SAR at 3-5). Watkins and First Wife signed the
“1950 Pension Plan--Notice to Pension Board of Election
of Optional Method of Pension Payment” (“Election
Form”) on June 19, 1991. (Id. at 4-5). The
Watkins' signatures on the Election Form were witnessed
by a Goodyear representative, Bettie R. Williams.
(Id. at 5). The Election Form sets out five options
(i.e., Options A, B, and C, Special 50% Joint and Survivor
Option, and No Option) for the retiree and spouse to
consider. (Id. at 4-5). The chosen option is
identified by checking the box that appears next to that
option on the form. (Id.). On Watkins' Election
Form, the box next to “Option B (50%)” was
checked on the first page of the form. (Id. at 4).
No other box was checked on the form. (Id. at 4-5).
Option B is the 50% joint and survivor option, which provides
a benefit for the retiree's surviving spouse described in
part as follows:
(2) After the first 60 monthly pension payments have been
made, a reduced monthly pension shall be payable to me [i.e.,
the retiree] for life.
(3) After my death, (but only if my death occurs after the
Option becomes effective) my spouse, as Contingent Annuitant,
shall receive monthly payments in an amount equal to one-half
of such reduced amount as would have been paid to me had I
been then living, with such payment to continue during the
lifetime of my spouse.
(Id. at 4). In the Election Notice at Option B,
Watkins designated First Wife as “my spouse”.
July 1, 1991, Watkins began receiving from the Plan an
unreduced monthly pension benefit payment (in the amount of
$910.00) under Option B. (Id. at 6). In July 1996,
after receiving 60 unreduced monthly payments, in accordance
with the terms of Option B, Watkins' monthly pension
benefit payment was reduced to $773.77 for the remainder of
his life. (Id. at 4, 6).
1, 1991, when he began receiving his Plan benefit, Watkins
was married to First Wife. (Id. at 1, 5, 26). First
Wife died on August 21, 2014. (Id. at 1, 26). On May
25, 2015, Watkins married Second Wife (Bobbie F. Watkins).
January 4, 2016, Goodyear received a letter from Watkins
requesting that Second Wife be allowed to receive a survivor
pension benefit if Watkins predeceased Second Wife.
(Id. at 1-2). Goodyear's Benefits Review
Committee (“BRC”) reviewed Watkins' request.
(Id. at 9-10). Shawn Breon, Goodyear's Manager
Benefit Operations, on behalf of the BRC, sent Watkins a
letter dated March 4, 2016 informing Watkins that the BRC had
reviewed his request to make Second Wife his surviving
spouse, and that the request was denied.
(Id.). In that letter, Breon wrote, in relevant
The [BRC] determined that after the death of your spouse,
Inez Watkins, no survivor pension benefit is payable to your
current spouse, Bobbie, because you were not married to
Bobbie on July 1, 1991[, ] when your pension payment
. . .
You retired from Goodyear-Gadsden under the 1950 Pension Plan
on July 1, 1991. At the time of your retirement, you elected
(with spousal consent by Inez Watkins) Option B-50% Joint and
Survivor Option for your spouse, Inez G. Watkins…. Our
records indicate that this spouse, Inez Watkins, died on
August 21, 2014[, ] and you later married Bobbie F. Watkins
on May 25, 2015. You and your current spouse, Bobbie, were
not married on the date your pension payments commenced, July
1, 1991, and therefore, Bobbie does not satisfy the
eligibility requirements [in the Plan] and no survivor
pension benefit is payable to her.
(Id. at 9). Breon notified Watkins of his right to
appeal this determination to the EAC/Pension Board.
(Id. at 10).Watkins responded, by counsel, by letter
dated June 24, 2016, in which counsel wrote, among other
12. There is a conflict between Option B, as signed by Loyd
Watkins, and the 1950 Pension Plan, creating an ambiguity.
13. Since Option B included no provision for the spouse dying
before the employee, Plaintiff should be entitled either to
full pension or entitled to add his current spouse as a
contingent beneficiary on his pension plan.
14. Loyd Watkins reasonably relied on the wording of Option B
as presented to him at retirement.
(Id. at 13); (see also Watkins's
Affidavit) (“I reasonably relied on Option B as
presented at the time I signed up for my
EAC/Pension Board met on December 7, 2016 to consider
Watkins' appeal. (SAR at 14-16). Attorney Allenstein
participated in that appeal meeting by phone. (Id.).
On December 7, 2016, Attorney Allenstein submitted to the
EAC/Pension Board by email an unsigned statement ...