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Knudson v. Oregon Sheet Metal Workers Master Retirement Trust

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

September 28, 2018

EUGENE KNUDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
OREGON SHEET METAL WORKERS MASTER RETIREMENT FUND TRUST, BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF OREGON SHEET METAL WOKERS MASTER RETIREMENT TRUST, EMPLOYER-INDUSTRIAL SHEET METAL WORKERS LOCAL NO. 16 PENSION TRUST, and BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE EMPLOYER-INDUSTRIAL SHEET METAL WORKERS LOCAL NO, 16 PENSION TRUST Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Ann Aiken United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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")[1], has a Master Plan, and is administered by a Board of Trustees.[2] 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.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Since 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.

         On July 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.

         Plaintiffs 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.

         Also on 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A 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).

         All 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 ...


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