MINNEAPOLIS PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY  
attorney Michael E. Douglas Attorney at Law
  Personal Injury Attorney
  St. Paul Workers Compensation Lawyer work comp attorney
 > About Me
   :: My Commitment
   :: Our Community
   
 > Legal Practice Areas
  twin cities comsumer lawPersonal Injury
   :: Traffic Accidents
   :: Medical Malpractice
   :: Social Security Disability
   :: Premises Liability
   :: Wrongful Death
   :: Dog Bite
   :: Back/Spinal/Neck Injuries
   :: Whiplash
   :: Defective Medical Devices
   :: Defective Drugs
  Minnesota Personal InjuryWorkers Compensation
  St. Paul personal injuryConsumer Law
   :: Debt Collection
   :: Repossessions
   :: Foreclosures
   :: Loan, Credit, Banking
   :: Arbitration Agreements
   :: Deception and Fraud
   :: Auto Fraud / Lemon Law
   :: Warranties
   :: Predatory Lending
   
 > Contact Us
   :: Contact Us
 

Law Offices of Michael E. Douglas
P.O. Box 251551
Woodbury, Minnesota 55125-6551
   

 Saint Paul Lawyer
 
 mdouglas@injurylawtwincities.com

 

US District Court : ERISA - no breach of fiduciary duty regarding waiver, not sending documents, etc.

1
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Becky J. Groska,
Plaintiff,
v. Civ. No. 05-114 (JNE/FLN)
ORDER
Northern States Power Company Pension
Plan; Successor(s) to the Northern States
Power Company Pension Plan; NSP Optional
Disability Plan; Successor(s) to the NSP
Optional Disability Plan; and Xcel Energy, Inc.,
Defendants.
Katherine L. MacKinnon, Esq., MacKinnon Law Office, appeared for Plaintiff Becky J. Groska.
Timothy R. Thornton, Esq., and Timothy L. Gelinske, Esq., Briggs & Morgan, PA, and Daniel
Shoemaker, Esq., Xcel Energy, Inc., appeared for Defendants Northern States Power Company
Pension Plan, Successor(s) to the Northern States Power Company Pension Plan, NSP Optional
Disability Plan, Successor(s) to the NSP Optional Disability Plan, and Xcel Energy, Inc.
Becky Groska brought this action against Northern States Power Company Pension Plan,
Successor(s) to the Northern States Power Company Pension Plan, NSP Optional Disability Plan,
Successor(s) to the NSP Optional Disability Plan, and Xcel Energy, Inc. (collectively,
Defendants) pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C.
1001-1461 (2000). The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1331
(2000). Groska alleges that Defendants violated ERISA by denying her disability benefits, by
breaching fiduciary duties, and by failing to provide plan documents. The case is before the
Court on Defendants motion for summary judgment and Groskas motion for partial summary
judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Defendants motion and denies
Groskas motion.
2
I. BACKGROUND
Groska worked for Northern States Power Company (NSP) from November 7, 1988, until
mid-August 2000. She enrolled in two disability plans offered by NSPa core plan and an
optional plan. The core plan, part of a combined pension and disability plan, replaced
approximately fifty percent of a disabled employees pre-disability income. The optional plan,
funded by employee contributions, allowed enrollees to enhance their monthly disability benefit
paid under the core plan by an additional ten or twenty percent of pre-disability income. NSP
was the administrator of both plans.
In August 1998, Groska was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Groska subsequently
discussed her condition and its impact on her ability to perform her job with individuals at NSP,
including her supervisor and NSP Department of Human Resources (HR) personnel. In late
1999, Groska received a sub-par rating on her annual performance evaluation. She initiated an
internal appeal of her rating in early 2000. NSP assigned HR labor relations consultant Lisa Pike
to assist Groska with her appeal. During the appeals process, Groska considered the possibility
of applying for disability benefits, and inquired about the process for doing so. On March 15,
2000, Groska met with NSP-sponsored physician Dr. Thomas Jetzer, who, after a brief visit, told
Groska were all a little tired. On March 22, 2000, the three-step appeals process concluded
with the final denial of Groskas appeal.
In 2000, NSP and New Century Energies, Inc., merged to form Xcel Energy, Inc. (Xcel).
That summer, Groska was informed that her job was merger affected. As a result, she was
given the option to compete with other similarly situated employees for remaining positions or to
resign with severance benefits. Groska participated in the competitive job-retention process,
during which she received very low ratings. Groska then decided to pursue the severance option.
3
After receiving written materials describing her severance options and attending a
company presentation, Groska elected a severance package that provided wages, health benefits,
and pension accruals for ten months after separation, and a release of all claims against
Xcel/NSP. Groska signed the NSP Severance Plan Agreement and Release Form (Release) on
August 24, 2000. The Release established August 15, 2000, as the effective termination date of
Groskas employment.
After leaving NSP, Groska applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits, and
on October 22, 2001, was awarded these benefits retroactive to August 16, 2000. This prompted
Groska to wonder whether she was entitled to benefits under the plans in which she had enrolled
during her employment at NSP. In January 2003, she wrote to request copies of her disability
plan documents so that she could apply for disability benefits. The plans responded on February
28, 2003, notified Groska that they regarded her request as a claim for benefits, and denied her
claim as untimely. Groska appealed this decision on August 25, 2003. On October 21, 2003, the
plans denied the appeal because Groskas claim was untimely and because she had released all
claims by accepting enhanced severance benefits.
Groska commenced this lawsuit on January 19, 2005. Defendants now move for
summary judgment. Groska moves for partial summary judgment.
II. DISCUSSION
Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories,
and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as
to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.
R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court
of the basis for its motion, and must identify those portions of [the record] which it believes
4
demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S.
317, 323 (1986). If the moving party satisfies its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the party opposing
the motion to respond by submitting evidentiary materials that designate specific facts showing
that there is a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475
U.S. 574, 587 (1986). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must
look at the record and any inferences to be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the party
opposing the motion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).
A. Governing formal plan documents and summary plan description
There is no dispute that the employee benefit plans at issue in this action are governed by
ERISA. ERISA requires that employee benefit plans be established by a written instrument. See
29 U.S.C. 1102(a)(1). ERISA also requires the creation of a summary plan description
(commonly referred to as an SPD), to inform participants of the terms of a formal plan and its
benefits. See 29 U.S.C. 1022, 1023; 29 C.F.R. 2520.102-2 (2006). The parties agree that
the Northern States Power Company Pension Plan (2000 Amendment) (the Core Plan) and the
NSP Optional Disability Plan (the Optional Plan) are the formal plan documents governing the
claims in this action. There is disagreement, however, regarding the identity of the governing
SPD. Groska argues that a document titled Compensation & Benefits for the 90s (C&B) is the
applicable SPD for the Core Plan and Optional Plan. Defendants acknowledge that C&B
previously served as the SPD for the Core Plan and Optional Plan, but assert C&B was replaced
in 1998 by a booklet titled Benefits for a New Era. Defendants contend that Benefits for a
New Era is the governing SPD.
After careful review, the Court concludes Benefits for a New Era is not an SPD. Both
ERISA and the Department of Labor regulations contain detailed provisions specifying the types
5
of information that must be disclosed in the SPD, including the name and type of the plan; the
name and address of the agent for service of process; the name and address of the plan
administrator; the plans eligibility requirements; circumstances which may result in denial or
loss of benefits; the source of the plans financing; the plan year; and claims procedures and
remedies available for redress of denied claims. See 29 U.S.C. 1022(a), (b); 29 C.F.R.
2520.102-3 (2006). Adequate disclosure to employees is one of ERISAs major purposes.
Barker v. Ceridian Corp., 122 F.3d 628, 633 (8th Cir. 1997). Because the Benefits for a New
Era booklet lacks almost all of this information, it does not qualify as an SPD of the Core Plan
or Optional Plan. See Palmisano v. Allina Health Sys., 190 F.3d 881, 888 (8th Cir. 1999)
(finding alleged SPD that contained only one piece of information required by ERISA
hopelessly inadequate, and giving it no legal effect). On the other hand, C&B includes the
various types of information required under ERISA and the Department of Labor regulations.
Accordingly, the Court concludes C&B is the governing SPD in this action.
B. Release of all claims by Groska
NSP moves for summary judgment on all counts on the grounds that Groska released
Defendants from any claims or liability in exchange for severance benefits when she left her
employment in August 2000. Groska argues the Release is invalid and unenforceable. In an
Order dated December 15, 2005, in which the undersigned denied Defendants motion for
judgment on the pleadings, the Court stated:
Under Leavitt [v. Northwestern Bell Telephone. Co., 921 F.2d 160 (8th Cir.
1990)], if Groska can substantiate her allegations that NSPs breaches of fiduciary
duty caused her unwittingly to relinquish her ERISA rights, enforcement of the
Release may be properly refused.
Defendants contend that Groska has failed to substantiate her allegations of breaches of fiduciary
duty, and that the Release is valid and enforceable.
6
1. NSPs fiduciary duties
It is well established that ERISA claims can be waived by a release of claims. See Leavitt
v. Nw. Bell Tel. Co., 921 F.2d 160, 162 (8th Cir. 1990). The release must, however, be knowing
and voluntary; a release will not be enforced if, in light of the totality of the circumstances, the
fiduciary obtained the release in violation of its duties to the beneficiary. See id. The ERISA
fiduciary standard requires that a fiduciary discharge his duties with respect to a plan solely in
the interest of the participants and beneficiaries. 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1). To demonstrate a
breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA, Groska must show that NSP (1) was a plan fiduciary; (2)
was acting in that capacity; and (3) breached a duty. See In re Xcel Energy, Inc., Sec., Derivative
& ERISA Litig., 312 F. Supp. 2d 1165, 1175 (D. Minn. 2004).
Groska argues the Release is invalid and unenforceable because NSP, as plan
administrator, misled her into foregoing her claim for disability benefits before and immediately
after she separated from NSP, and that she was thereby induced to sign a form severance
agreement tha t arguably waives or releases any claim she had for disability benefits.
Specifically, Groska asserts NSP breached its fiduciary duties by (1) failing to have consistent
and clear claim procedures in place and properly disseminated; (2) failing to recognize Groska
had given notice of a disability claim in January 2000, and failing to act on it or provide
directions how to proceed; (3) failing to provide a written denial of Groskas claim and give
notice of appeal rights; (4) allowing Groska to sign a waiver form when it knew she had a
pending disability claim; and (5) failing to inform Groska clearly that the waiver would include
ERISA claims.
7
a. Failure to have consistent and clear claim procedures in place and properly
disseminated
Groska claims the disability benefits system and claims procedures implemented by NSP
were inconsistent, confusing, and improperly disseminated. First, Groska asserts NSP breached
its fiduciary duties by failing to comply with its obligations to provide summary descriptions of
modifications made to the plans. Groska claims NSP failed to inform plan participants of
changes made to the vacation and disability benefits systems in a timely manner. Groska has
failed to present evidence to substantiate this claim.
ERISA requires plan administrators to furnish plan participants summary descriptions
of modifications or changes, such as those at issue here, not later than 210 days after the end of
the plan year in which the change is adopted. 29 U.S.C. 1024(B)(1)(b). The document titled
Benefits for a New Era expressly notifies plan participants of the vacation/disability benefits
changes and states that NSP is providing the booklet to explain NSPs new Paid Time Off and
disability programs. NSP distributed the booklet to participants in late 1998, even though the
changes were not effective until January 1999. Subsequent annual benefit enrollment booklets
distributed by NSP also provided various details of the Paid Time Off and disability programs.
Next, Groska claims NSP employees misinformed her about proper procedures for
applying for disability benefits in violation of their fiduciary duties. Groska specifically
identifies Lisa Pike as the employee who told her she needed to see Dr. Jetzer and obtain his
approval when Groska inquired about the process for applying for short-term disability benefits.
Groska met with Dr. Jetzer on March 15, 2000, and after a brief visit, Dr. Jetzer told Groska
were all a little tired. Groska asserts she understood this to mean she did not qualify for
disability benefits and that Dr. Jetzer had denied her claim. Thus, Groska claims, she did not
further pursue a disability claim. Pike denies telling Groska she had to see Dr. Jetzer to apply for
8
short-term disability and testified that she directed Groska to the benefits division of HR for
information on how to apply for disability benefits. Not withstanding this factual dispute,
Defendants argue Pike is not a fiduciary within the meaning of ERISA and its governing
regulations. The Court agrees.1
Under ERISA, a fiduciary is one who exercises discretionary control over some aspect of
the management or administration of an ERISA plan, or any control whatsoever over plan assets.
See 29 U.S.C. 1002(21)(A); In re Xcel Energy, 312 F. Supp. 2d at 1175. A person may be
deemed a fiduciary on the basis of his or her functional authority and control relative to the plan.
Id.; Mertens v. Hewitt Assoc., 508 U.S. 248, 262 (1993). Discretion is the benchmark for
fiduciary status under ERISA. Maniace v. Commerce Bank of Kansas City, 40 F.3d 264, 267
(8th Cir.1994). The performance of purely ministerial functions does not, within the
framework of ERISA, entail discretionary authority or responsibility. Kerns v. Benefit Trust Life
Ins. Co., 992 F.2d 214, 217-18 (8th Cir. 1993); Anoka Orthopedic Assoc., P.A. v. Lechner, 910
F.2d 514, 517 (8th Cir. 1990); see also 29 C.F.R. 2509.75-8, D-2 (2006).
The Department of Labor has determined that certain individuals who have no power to
make any decisions as to plan policy, interpretations, practices or procedures, but who perform
administrative functions for an employee benefit plan, within the framework of policies,
interpretations, rules, practices and procedures made by other persons, [i.e.,] fiduciaries with
1 Groska appears to concede Pikes non- fiduciary status as an HR employee, arguing
instead that Pike is a fiduciary under the theory of apparent authority. Groska relies on cases
from other districts to support her agency theory. The Court rejects this argument and follows
the Eighth Circuit and other courts in this district, which utilize the Department of Labor
Bulletin, 29 C.F.R. 2509.75-8, D-1 (2006), when considering the distinction between acts that
are discretionary, and thus impose fiduciary responsibilities upon the actor, and acts that are
purely ministerial, and thus outside of fiduciary responsibilities and duties. See Kerns v. Benefit
Trust Life Ins. Co., 992 F.2d 214, 217-18 (8th Cir. 1993) (citing 29 C.F.R. 2509.75-8, D-2);
Bd. Of Tr. of W. Lake Superior Piping Indus. Pension Fund. v. Am. Benefit Plan Admrs, 925 F.
Supp. 1424, 1430 n.4 (D. Minn. 1996) (citing Kerns, 922 F.2d at 217-18).
9
respect to the plan[,] are not fiduciaries within the meaning of ERISA. 29 C.F.R. 2509.75-8,
D-2. This non- fiduciary status includes individuals who perform administrative functions of
[o]rientation of new participants and advising participants of their rights and options under the
plan and [m]aking recommendations to others for decisions with respect to plan
administration. Id.
It is undisputed that Lisa Pike worked in HR as a labor relations consultant. Pike testified
that her duties included assisting employees with internal disputes and grievances, facilitating the
peer group review process, and promoting management-employee relations. She also worked on
accommodation and discrimination issues. It is also undisputed tha t Groskas interactions with
Pike in 2000 originated through Groskas commencement of a peer group appeal of her 1999
performance rating and included consideration of possible accommodations that could improve
Groskas job performance. Even if the Court construes the record in a light most favorable to
Groska and assumes Pike told Groska to see Dr. Jetzer to apply for short-term disability, Pikes
directive to do so falls squarely within the ministerial acts excluded from fiduciary status in 29
C.F.R. 2509.75-8, D-2. Groska fails to present evidence demonstrating Pike possessed power
to make decisions as to plan policy, interpretations, practices or procedures, or that Pike decided
whether or not someone was eligible for benefits under the plans. There is no evidence that Pike
dealt with the assets of the plans. On the basis of the record before the Court, Pike was not, as a
matter of law, a fiduciary of the Core Plan or the Optional Plan while Groska was employed at
NSP.
Finally, the Court has already determined that C&B is the governing SPD. Groska
acknowledged receiving C&B during her employment and admitted at her deposition that C&B
provides sufficient detail to inform her that she should have gone to her manager to apply for
10
disability benefits. Groska has failed to submit evidence of a breach of a fiduciary duty by NSP
relating to the clarity of benefits information or the sufficiency of its dissemination.
b. Failure to recognize Groskas notice of a disability claim, and failing to act on
it or provide directions how to proceed
Groska next contends NSP breached its fiduciary duty by failing to understand that it was
on notice of a disability benefits claim after January 26, 2000, when she discussed the possibility
of disability leave with Pike. Defendants argue they were not on notice of a claim for disability
by Groska because she never filed any such claim during her employment. Groska contends she
followed the procedures set forth in C&B as best she could, and that Dr. Jetzer orally denied her
claim when he told her were all a little tired.
A claim for benefits is a request for a plan benefit or benefits made by a claimant in
accordance with a plans reasonable procedure for filing benefit claims. 29 C.F.R. 2560.503-
1(e)(2006). Moreover, informal statements by an employers representatives about benefits do
not legally alter an ERISA plan. See Palmisano, 190 F.3d at 885 (stating ERISA precludes oral
or informal amendments to a plan); Barker, 122 F.3d at 982. The Core Plan, the Optional Plan
and C&B expressly provide that an employees request for benefits under the plans must be in
writing to be considered a claim for benefits. C&B, which Groska acknowledges receiving
during her employment at NSP, provides specific information about how to apply for disability
benefits: To apply for disability benefits your manager must submit a written request to the
Human Resources Department. You must have a statement from your physician identifying the
disability. Then a Company-approved doctor and a Disability Committee will review your
case.
Groska does not contend the directions for applying for disability benefits as set forth in
C&B are unclear. As previously noted, she admitted C&B states in sufficient detail that she
11
should have contacted her manager regarding an application for disability benefits. Groska
presents no evidence showing that her manager, Kevin Lawless, submitted a written request for
disability benefits to HR on her behalf. Groska has failed to submit evidence of her compliance
with the procedures for applying for disability benefits during her employment at NSP. In the
absence of a proper claim application, NSP had no notice of her claim for disability benefits that
would have triggered fiduciary responsibilities concerning a response to the claim. As discussed
above, Groska has also failed to demonstrate that a plan fiduciary misinformed her about the
procedures for submitting a claim for disability. Thus, Groska has failed to raise any issues of
material fact regarding a breach of fiduciary duty by NSP in this regard.
c. Failure to provide a written denial of Groskas claim and give notice of appeal
rights; and allowing Groska to sign a waiver form when NSP knew Groska
had a pending disability claim
Groska next claims NSP breached its fiduciary duties by failing to provide proper notice
upon denial of her disability claim in March 2000, and by subsequently allowing her to sign a
waiver form when NSP knew she had a pending disability claim. For the reasons already stated,
Groska has failed to submit evidence of her compliance with the claim application procedures set
forth in C&B. Without a properly submitted claim, NSP had no active obligation to provide a
written denial to Groska or to inform her of any appeal rights. In addition, because Groska
cannot demonstrate that she had a pending claim for disability benefits during her employment,
she cannot demonstrate that NSP had knowledge of any such pending claim at the time Groska
signed the Release in August 2000. Consequently, Groska cannot demonstrate that NSP
breached its fiduciary duties on these grounds.
12
d. Failure to inform Groska clearly that the waiver would include ERISA claims
Finally, Groska contends NSP breached its fiduciary duty by failing to clearly inform her
that the waiver in the enhanced severance package included a waiver of her rights under ERISA.
Groska claims NSP urged her to take severance and sign the waiver when it knew she was
disabled and had a claim for disability benefits.
As previously discussed, Groskas assertion that she gave NSP notice of a disability
claim during her employment is unsupported by evidence in the record. Moreover, even if NSP
had notice of a potential claim for disability, a finding the Court does not make, the express
language of the Release identifies any and all claims, demands, actions and liabilities
whatsoever, whether known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected, the Employee may have or
claim to have as the legal claims Groska released, waived, and discharged through execution of
the Release and acceptance of severance benefits. General release forms that release legal claims
in exchange for severance benefits are enforceable under ERISA, even when the claimant might
have otherwise been eligible for them. See Mead v. Intermec Techs. Corp., 271 F.3d 715, 717
(8th Cir. 2001).
e. No breach of fiduciary duty
In sum, Groska has failed to sufficiently substantiate her allegations that NSP breached
its fiduciary duties in obtaining the Release. Under the totality of the circumstances, the Court
concludes the evidence presented by Groska is insufficient to demonstrate NSP caused her to
unwittingly relinquish her ERISA rights by signing the Release in August 2000 in exchange for
severance benefits. See Leavitt, 921 F.2d at 162. Consequently, the Court concludes the Release
is valid, and turns to the question of whether its execution by Groska was knowing and
voluntary. Id.
13
2. Knowing and voluntary
In determining whether a release is knowing and voluntary, the Court applies general
principles of contract. Id. In applying these principles to a particular case, the Court must
consider: (1) Groskas education and business experience; (2) Groskas input in negotiating the
terms of the settlement; (3) the clarity of the release language; (4) the amount of time Groska
had for deliberation before signing the release; (5) whether Groska read the release and
considered its terms before signing it; (6) whether Groska knew of her rights under the plans and
the relevant facts when she signed the release; (7) whether Groska was given an opportunity to
consult with an attorney before signing the release; (8) whether Groska received adequate
consideration for the release; and (9) whether Groskas release was induced by improper
conduct on NSPs part. See id.
It is undisputed that Groska was a management-level employee at NSP who had
completed almost all of the coursework required for an MBA at the time she executed the
Release. While she did not have any direct input into negotiating the terms of the Release, she
did have a choice between a basic severance plan that provided two months of severance
benefits and did not include the Release and the enhanced benefit plan, which included ten
months of severance benefits in exchange for execution of the Release. Groska chose the longer
benefits period provided under the enhanced severance package. Groska received written
materials describing the severance options and attended a meeting where the specific details of
the severance options were explained. She was given forty-five days to consider signing the
Release after she received it, and then fifteen days following execution to revoke her signature.
Both the severance plan summary description and the Release itself suggested that Groska seek
legal counsel before signing. She did not. However, Groskas failure to consult an attorney
14
does not undermine enforceability of the Release. See id. at 162-63. Finally, paragraph 10 of
the Release states:
Employee hereby states the Employee understands that it is Employees choice
whether or not to enter into this Agreement and Release, and that the Employees
decision to do so is voluntary and is made knowingly.
On the basis of this evidence, the Court concludes Groskas execution of the Release was
knowing and voluntary, and that the Release is both valid and enforceable.
3. Applicability of the Release to Defendants
According to the express language of the Release, Groska released, waived, and
discharged
the Company [Xcel or NSP], its predecessors, successors and any affiliated and
subsidiary companies, corporations, partnerships or other business enterprises
from any and all claims, demands, actions and liabilities whatsoever, whether
known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected, that Employee may have or claim
to have in any way relating to or arising out of any event or act of omission or
commission occurring on or before the date of Employees execution of this
Agreement and Release
Pursuant to the plain language of the Release, Groska released, waived, and discharged all of the
claims she has asserted against Xcel in this action.
However, under ERISA, the law recognizes the separate existence of employee benefit
plans. An employee benefit plan may sue or be sued under this subchapter as an entity. 29
U.S.C. 1132(d)(1). Further, [a]ny money judgment under this subchapter against an employee
benefit plan shall be enforceable only against the plan as an entity and shall not be enforceable
against any other person unless liability against such person is established in his individual
capacity under this subchapter. Id. at 1132(d)(2). Accordingly, because the plans are
properly recognized as legal entities that are separate from NSP, and because the Release does
not name the Core Plan and the Optional Plan, or their successors, as parties to the Release, the
15
Court concludes that these plans were not released by the agreement signed by Groska on August
24, 2000.2 Consequently, Groskas allegations of wrongful denial of disability benefits and her
claim for statutory penalties against the Core Plan and the Optional Plan, and their successors, in
the present action are not barred by the Release.
C. Groskas claims against the Core Plan and the Optional Plan and their successors
1. Denial of benefits
Groska claims that the Core Plan and the Optional Plan, and their successors, improperly
denied her claims for disability benefits. This claim is without merit. As already discussed,
Groska has failed to submit evidence of her compliance with the procedures for applying for
disability benefits during her employment at NSP. In the absence of a March 2000 claim,
Groska cannot substantiate her allegations that her claim was improperly denied by the plans.
As for the denial of Groskas January 2003 claim for disability benefits, the Court
reviews this denial for an abuse of discretion by the plan fiduciary when, as in this case, an
ERISA plan fiduciary has authority to determine eligibility for an ERISA benefit plan or to
interpret plan terms. See Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). A
plaintiff making a claim under section 1132(a)(1)(B) bears the burden of proving an entitlement
to plan benefits. See Farley v. Benefit Trust Life Ins. Co., 979 F.2d 653, 658 (8th Cir. 1992).
The Core Plan and C&B provide that a former NSP employee is not entitled to a
Disability Pension unless the former employee requests a Disability Pension within thirty days of
the date of employment termination. Groska asserts her employment at NSP terminated on
2 Defendants contend that because NSP is the sponsor and administrator of both the Core
Plan and the Optional Plan, the plans are affiliated and subsidiary ent ities of NSP as those
terms are used in the Release. Defendants have not cited to any legal authority in support of this
contention, and the Court declines to adopt Defendants unsupported reasoning here.
16
August 16, 2000. Groska testified that on January 24, 2003, she sent a written request to her
former employer seeking information about disability benefits under the plans. The plan
administrator, now Excel, responded on February 28, 2003, informed Groska that it construed
her request as a claim for disability benefits, and denied her claim as untimely because the claim
filing period established by the plans had expired. Excel informed Groska of her rights regarding
appeal, including her right to review any documents that have a bearing on the claim, and that
she could submit information or comments as part of her request for review. Groska appealed
the denial on August 25, 2003. Excel denied her appeal on October 21, 2003.
Construing these facts in a light most favorable to Groska, the Court concludes that there
is no genuine issue of fact regarding whether Groskas request for disability benefits in January
2003 was untimely. Groskas notice of her intention to seek disability benefits under the plans
arrived more than two years after the termination of her employment at NSP. The Court
concludes that the denial of Groskas claim for disability benefits was not an abuse of discretion.
Accordingly, the Core Plan and the Optiona l Plan, and their successors, are entitled to summary
judgment on Groskas claims of wrongful denial of disability benefits.
2. Failure to provide plan documents
ERISA requires plan administrators to provide participants with copies of plan
documents upon written request. See 29 U.S.C. 1024(b)(4). However, a former employee is a
participant of a plan only if the former employee has a colorable claim that would prevail in a
suit for benefits. Mead, 271 F.3d at 717 (citing Firestone, 489 U.S. at 117-18). Groska was a
former employee when she submitted her written request for plan documents in January 2003,
but she was not a plan participant.
17
As discussed above, when Groska sent her written request for relevant plan documents in
January 2003, the thirty-day post-termination deadline for filing notice of a claim for disability
benefits had long passed. Groska did not have a pending claim for disability benefits when her
employment with NSP terminated and she was no longer eligible for disability benefits under the
plans in January 2003. Under these circumstances, the Core Plan and the Optional plan, and
their successors, did not breach any duties owed to Groska by failing to provide her with plan
documents in 2003, because Groska was a former employee without a colorable claim that would
prevail in a suit for benefits, and as such was not a participant of the plans. See Mead, 271 F.3d
at 717. Thus, to the extent the Core Plan and the Optional plan, and their successors, could be
held liable for statutory penalties for the plans alleged failure to supply plan documents to
Groska following her requests in 2003, the Court concludes they are entitled to summary
judgment on Groskas claims seeking payment of any such penalties.
III. CONCLUSION
Based on the files, records, and proceedings herein, and for the reasons stated above, IT
IS ORDERED THAT:
1. Defendants motion for summary judgment [Docket No. 41] is GRANTED.
2. Groskas Motion for Summary Judgment on Count III [Docket No. 47] is
DENIED.
3. The Complaint [Docket No. 1] is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
Dated: September 24, 2007
s/ Joan N. Ericksen
JOAN N. ERICKSEN
United States District Judge
 

 
 
 

  What day were you injured?

  / /


  What caused your injuries?
Traffic/Bicycle Accident
Work-Related Injury
Wrongful Death
Dog Bite
Slip and Fall
Other:


  How have your injuries affected

  your life?

 


  What kinds of medical care
  professionals have you seen?

 


  What has your treatment cost?

 

  Is Insurance Involved?
My insurance may cover
        this.

Someone else's insurance
        may cover this.

I already filed a claim.
I rejected a settlement
        offer.

I accepted a settlement
        offer.

  Were there any witnesses?
Bystanders Witnessed This.
Police Responded and Filed
        a Police Report

Police Responded but Did
        Not File a Police Report


 

 

          By visiting this page or clicking the
  "submit" button above, you agree
  that you have read and accept this   "disclaimer".
 
Copyright © Michael E. Douglas, Attorney at Law, Saint Paul MN. All Rights Reserved.
Minnesota Law Firm representing Personal Injury, Car / Auto Accident, Workers Compensation, Medical Malpractice, Social Security Disability claims.
Dedicated to Injured Workers, Victims of Negligence, Car Accidents, Victims of Fraud, and those in need of legal assistance.