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Smith v. Neca-Ibew Pension Benefit Trust Fund

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

April 3, 2014

KENNETH SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
THE NECA-IBEW PENSION BENEFIT TRUST FUND, Defendant

MEMORANDUM OPINION

THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon Defendant NECA-IBEW Pension Benefit Trust Fund's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 15.) Plaintiff Kenneth Smith has responded. (Docket No. 18.) Defendant has replied. (Docket No. 19.) This matter is now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. For the following reasons and consistent with the below opinion, the Court will GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 15.)

BACKGROUND

This is an action seeking judicial review of a decision by the Appeals Committee of the Board of Trustees of the NECA-IBEW Pension Trust ("Pension Plan") to deny Plaintiff Kenneth Smith's claim for severance of employment benefits accrued after January 31, 2006. On July 1, 2011, Plaintiff Smith submitted his application for severance of employment benefits. On July 26, 2011, Smith was notified that his application for severance of employment benefits accrued as of January 31, 2006, was approved, but that his application for severance of employment benefits accrued after January 31, 2006, was denied because his employment as a Maintenance Electrician with LATA was considered within the Electrical Construction Industry.

Plaintiff Smith subsequently appealed the decision to deny his application for severance of employment benefits accrued after January 31, 2006. In his appeal, Smith argued he was entitled to severance of employment benefits accrued after January 31, 2006, because he had "not returned to the electrical construction industry" and "the IBEW does not have an electrical maintenance branch or is recognized under any other branch." On October 31, 2012, the Appeals Committee denied Smith's appeal. Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the McCracken Circuit Court on September 11, 2013, alleging breach of contract and requesting an award of compensatory damages, reasonable attorney fees and costs, and other relief to which he may be entitled. (Docket No. 1-2.) That action was subsequently removed to this Court. (Docket No. 1.)

STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

"[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J. C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; the plaintiff must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for the plaintiff. See id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). The plaintiff may accomplish this by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record" or by "showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence... of a genuine dispute...." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Mere speculation will not suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment; "the mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate." Moinette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996).

DISCUSSION

Defendant argues that the Appeals Committee's decision to deny Smith's claim for severance of employment benefits accrued after January 31, 2006, is entitled to review under the abuse of discretion standard-as opposed to de novo. Plaintiff's response does not dispute that abuse of discretion is the correct standard.[1] ( See Docket No. 18.) In any event, the Court notes the standard would not be determinative in the outcome of this case because the Plan's language is clear and unambiguous.

(a) Plaintiff's Breach of Contract Claim Based on Section 6.04(b) of the Plan

Section 6.04(b) of the Plan describes employment benefits payable with respect to the benefits accrued after January 31, 2006:

(b) Benefits Accrued after January 31, 2006
With respect to benefits accrued after January 31, 2006: If a Participant has ceased to work in the Electrical Construction Industry for a period of two consecutive years or more. Then upon application to the Trustees and submission of proof satisfactory to the Trustees, such a Participant may be treated as if he is retired under Section 6.01(a) in the case of a married Participant or under Section 6.01(b) in the case of an unmarried Participant. If an application is ...

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