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Harris v. Central States Pension Fund

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

April 15, 2019




         This matter is before the Court on the Defendant's, Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund, Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) [ECF No. 13], the Plaintiff's, Jimella Harris, Motion for Judgment of Partial Findings [ECF No. 21], and the Plaintiff's Request for Sanctions [ECF No. 20].


         The Plaintiff was married to a participant in the Defendant's pension plan from August 25, 1995 to August 27, 2003. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 1.) After the Plaintiff became aware that her ex-husband retired from the Defendant's employ, she contacted the Defendant on August 23, 2004 to state that she was entitled to her ex-husband's pension. (Id. ¶ 8.) The Plaintiff claimed her divorce decree from the Allen County Superior Court entitled her to her ex-husband's pension. The Plaintiff requested a lump sum payment of the money owed and verification of her beneficiary status. (Id. at 23.)

         On September 14, 2004, the Defendant informed the Plaintiff that she was not entitled to benefits from the Defendant. (Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss at 4, ECF No. 14.) The Defendant stated that the Plaintiff's divorce decree was not a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO)[1] and a QDRO was needed because her ex-husband's pension was an ERISA regulated plan. (Id.) The Plaintiff would not be an alternate payee entitled to pension benefits until the Defendant received a QDRO. The Defendant then explained the requirements for a QDRO to the Plaintiff. (Id.)

         The Plaintiff obtained a QDRO until May 2008. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 9.) On June 14, 2008, the Plaintiff sent the Defendant two versions of domestic relations orders, which she requested the Defendant qualify as QDROs. (Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Mot. for Partial Findings at 3, ECF No. 30.) On June 10, 2008, the Defendant informed the Plaintiff it had received the two proposed QDROs and informed her that it would establish an escrow account for up to 18 months to determine whether the parties were able to submit an order that the Defendant considered a QDRO. (Id. at 4.) On September 17, 2008, the Defendant received a letter from the Plaintiff, which requested that the Defendant discontinue the escrow account established pursuant to the June 10, 2008 letter “because the May 22, 2008 Court Order was not submitted as a QDRO.” (Id.) On September 18, 2008, the Defendant informed the Plaintiff's ex-husband that it would release the escrowed amounts. (Id.) The Defendant received a signed and notarized statement from both the Plaintiff and her ex-husband that requested the release of the escrowed amounts. (Id.) The Defendants ultimately determined that the remaining proposed QDRO was defective. (Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss at 6.)

         The Plaintiff's ex-husband died in November 2008 (Pl.'s Compl. at 75) and the Plaintiff appealed the denial of benefits in 2009. (Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Mot. for Partial Findings at 6.) The Defendant advised the Plaintiff on June 17, 2009 that she was not eligible to receive any pension benefit and the proposed QDROs were defective. (Id.) The Defendant determined that the Plaintiff was not eligible for a surviving spouse benefit because she was not married to her ex-husband at the time of his death. Since she had not submitted a QDRO assigning her surviving spouse rights and the Plaintiff's Decree of Dissolution of Marriage did not constitute a QDRO, she was not eligible for a surviving spouse benefit. (Id.) The Plaintiff later had a new proposed domestic relations order that could have qualified as a QDRO, but the Defendant needed a certified copy of the signed order entered by the Court. (Id.) The Defendant never received such an order. (Id.)

         The Plaintiff requested that the Defendant reopen her appeal in 2018. On January 4, 2018, the Defendant informed the Plaintiff that while her appeal had been denied on June 9, 2009, it would review new information provided. (Id.) The Plaintiff, however, failed to provide any new information and the Defendant denied her request to reopen her 2009 appeal. (Id.) On February 1, 2018, the Plaintiff submitted an appeal in the administrative appeal process, which the Defendant's Benefit Claims Appeals Committee denied on March 21, 2018. (Id.) The Plaintiff then appealed to the Trustees and her appeal was denied again. (Id.)

         The Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed a Complaint [ECF No. 1] and Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis [ECF No. 2] on September 11, 2018.[2] The Plaintiff lists several causes of action but all her arguments center around her claim that the Defendant breached its fiduciary duty to her as she was a beneficiary to the Defendant's plan. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 11.) The Plaintiff also alleges that there was willful concealment of material information on two fronts: (i) the Defendant willfully concealed its possession of the Plaintiff's divorce decree; and (ii) failed to notify the Plaintiff of the pension plan procedures. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14, 23(A)-(B).) Finally, the Plaintiff argues that the Defendant withheld $4, 000 in an escrow fund for the Plaintiff and then required the funds to be returned to the Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 20.)

         On November 16, 2018, the Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 13] pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) and 12(b)(6). First, the Defendant contends that the Plaintiff's Complaint failed to present a short and plain statement of her claim showing that she is entitled to relief pursuant to Rule 8(a)(2). (Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss at 1.) Second, the Defendant argues that the Plaintiff's claims are barred by the three-year statute of limitations for fiduciary breaches. (Id.) The Plaintiff filed a response [ECF No. 19], the Defendant filed a reply [ECF No. 24], the Plaintiff filed a sur-response [ECF No. 26], and the Defendant filed an additional reply [ECF No. 29].

         On November 26, 2018, the Plaintiff filed a Request for Sanctions [ECF No. 20] and a Motion for Judgment on Partial Findings [ECF No. 21]. The Plaintiff requests sanctions against the Defendant for failure to provide timely service and requests that the Court order that all future copies of filings are sent via express mail. (Pl.'s Mot for Sanctions at 1-2.) In her Motion for Judgment on Partial Findings, the Plaintiff argues that the Defendant should pay $4, 000 due to loss of funds as a direct result of the Defendant's errors. (Pl.'s Mot. for J. on Partial Findings at 1-2.) The Defendant filed a response [ECF No. 28] to the Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on Partial Findings and the Plaintiff filed a reply [ECF No. 30].


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” This pleading standard “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). A complaint does not suffice “if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Rule 12(b)(6) “challenges the viability of a complaint by arguing that it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Camasta v. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Inc.,761 F.3d 732, 736 (7th Cir. 2014). The Court presumes that all well-pleaded allegations are true, views these well-pleaded allegations in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, and accepts as true all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the allegations. Whirlpool Fin. Corp. v. GN Holdings, Inc.,67 F.3d 605, 608 (7th Cir 1995). The Complaint need not contain detailed facts, but surviving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion “requires more than labels and conclusions . . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “A claim has facial ...

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