United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Aiken United States District Judge
Eugene Knudson appeals the denial of his applications for
early retirement benefits. Plaintiff is currently employed as
a welder at the Bonneville Power Administration
("BPA"). He sought benefits accrued during his
years as a sheet metal worker from two pension plans, the
Employer-Industrial Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 16 Pension
Trust ("Pension Trust") and the Oregon Sheet Metal
Workers Master Retirement Fund Trust ("Master
Trust"). Each Trust is governed by the Employee
Retirement Income Security Act
("ERISA"), has a Master Plan, and is administered by
a Board of Trustees. Both plans require that early retirement
beneficiaries refrain from sheet metal work. When plaintiff
applied to collect his pension, both Boards determined that
his work as a welder at BPA was sheet metal work, and that he
was ineligible for early retirement benefits. Plaintiff seeks
review of these decisions. Both plans grant discretion to
their respective administrators to determine eligibility and
interpret ambiguities in the plans. As explained in more
detail below, because neither Board abused its discretion,
plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (doc, 22) is DENIED,
and defendants' motions for summary judgment (doc. 15 and
doc. 28) are GRANTED.
has earned two sheet metal retirement pensions. From
1999-2004, plaintiffs employer made contributions on his
behalf to the Pension Trust, and between 1995-1998 and
2005-2012, plaintiff worked for an employer who contributed
on his behalf to the Master Trust.
has been a member of the Sheet Metal Workers'
International Association Local 16 since 1995. In his current
position, he is also a member of the Plumbers and
Steamfitters Local 290 Union.
2012, plaintiff has worked as a welder for BPA. Plaintiffs
work is "primarily fabricating, assembling and repairing
bus in BPA switchyard and substations." Pension AR
31-37. According to his job description, plaintiff also
"performs all types of general welding on shop
fabrications, steel, stainless steel, aluminum and chromium
structures, trucks, dozers, cranes, booms, shovel buckets,
etc." He maintains the required BPA welding
certifications. Buckley Dec. at 7.
23, 2016, plaintiff applied to receive early retirement
benefits from the Pension Trust. The Pension Trust is a
multi-employer benefit trust fund. Employers who have
collective bargaining agreements with the Local 16 Union
contribute to the fund. The Pension Plan provides for several
forms of retirement benefits, including early retirement. The
Board of Trustees is the administrator of the Pension Trust
and is empowered by the Pension Plan to "administer the
Plan, construe and interpret the provisions of the Plan and
Trust Agreement, and resolve all questions arising in the
administration, construction, interpretation and application
of the plan." Pension AR 156.
application was first considered and denied by the Pension
Trust Pension Application Review Committee. The Review
Committee determined that plaintiff did not meet the
eligibility requirements for early retirement because his
work as a welder "consitut[ed] employment for wage or
profit as a sheet metal worker" which was a
disqualifying factor under the Plan. Pension AR 18. Plaintiff
appealed to the Pension Trust Board of Trustees, which
affirmed the Review Committee's decision.
July 23, 2016, plaintiff applied to receive early retirement
benefits from the Master Trust. Like the Pension Trust, the
Master Trust is a multi-employer benefit trust fund, the
Board of Trustees is the administrator, and it is governed by
a Master Plan. The Master Plan gives the Board of Trustees
"full, absolute and unlimited power and authority"
to "administer and interpret" the plan,
"construe or interpret the plan . . . determine benefit
eligibility, credits, accrual, or entitlement; and to
exercise any discretionary powers under the Plan as necessary
or desirable[.]" Master AR 350. The Master Trust Pension
Application Review Committee reviewed and denied plaintiffs
application for early retirement benefits. The Review
Committee determined that the plaintiff did not meet the
eligibility requirements to receive early retirement benefits
because he was working as a welder and had not refrained from
"any employment anywhere for wages or profit in the
sheet metal industry." Master AR 35-37.
appealed, and the Master Trust Board of Trustees affirmed the
Review Committee's determination that the plaintiff was
not eligible for early retirement benefits because he was
still working in the industry and had not retired.
then filed the present suit, challenging both denials of
early retirement benefits. He asserts that the Boards abused
their discretion by determining that he was not retired from
sheet metal work. Both defendants have moved for summary
judgment in their favor, and plaintiff filed a cross motion
for summary judgment in his favor. Due to the similar nature
of the issues the Court has consolidated consideration of the
motions in a single order and opinion.
district court will review a plan administrator's
decision to deny benefits de novo unless the plan
expressly gives the administrator discretion to determine
eligibility or construe the plan's provisions.
Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S.
101, 115 (1989); Anderson v. Suburban Teamsters N. Ill.
Pension, 588 F.3d 641, 646 (9th Cir. 2009). If the plan
administrator has discretion, a reviewing court will apply an
abuse of discretion standard. Tapley v. Locals 302 and
612 of Intern. Union of Operating Eng'rs-Employers
Construction Indus. Ret. Plan, 728 F.3d 1134, 1139 (9th
Cir. 2013). Under this standard, a court will closely
consider the terms of the plan but will give deference to the
administrator's interpretation if it has a rational
justification. Id. A plan administrator abuses its
discretion if it "construes provisions of a plan in a
way that clearly conflicts with the plain language of the
Plan, . . . renders nugatory other provisions of the Plan,
... or lacks any rational nexus to the primary purpose of the
Plan." Id. (internal citations omitted).
parties have filed motions for summary judgment. Summary
judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of
material fact before the court and the moving party is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp, v.
Catrett,477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In ERISA cases,
"a motion for summary judgment is merely the conduit to
bring the ...