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Bull v. Sara Lee Corp.

March 29, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Janet T. Neff United States District Judge



Plaintiff, Personal Representative of the Estate of Terrance A. Bull, filed suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 to 1461, against Defendants Sara Lee Corporation, Sara Lee Corporation Group Insurance Plan, and Sara Lee Corporation Employee Benefits Administrative Committee.*fn1 Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6) on the basis that Plaintiff's complaint is time-barred (Dkt 20). Plaintiff has filed a response (Dkt 23), and Defendants have filed a reply (Dkt 24). Having reviewed the parties' written submissions and accompanying exhibits, the Court finds that the relevant facts and arguments are adequately presented in these materials and that oral argument would not aid the decisional process. See W.D. Mich. LCivR 7.2(d). For the reasons discussed herein, the Court grants Defendants' motion.


Terrance A. Bull worked at the Defendant Sara Lee Corporation's Traverse City, Michigan pie factory on an intermittent basis for over 28 years (Compl. ¶ 17). His employment was intermittent because Sara Lee routinely laid off a portion of its employees after each season's fruit harvest and pie-making was complete (id. ¶ 21). Bull had an ERISA-governed benefit plan ("Plan") from Defendant Sara Lee that provided, among other benefits, optional life insurance coverage (id. ¶ 20). The Plan contains an amendment to Subsection 4.4, effective January 1, 2006, which provides that

A Covered Employee's coverage under the Plan will continue during an authorized unpaid leave of absence up to a maximum period of six (6) months commencing on the date the Covered Employee commences the unpaid leave of absence, provided the Employee timely pays the applicable premium for coverage under the Plan, if any, when due.

On November 16, 2005, Bull became eligible and elected to go on voluntary lay off during the winter of 2005-2006. Bull's layoff began on December 5, 2005, and he was recalled and scheduled to report to work on Friday, May 19, 2006 (id. ¶ 39). However, since Bull had requested and received approved vacation leave from May 17-19, 2006, he planned to report the following week (id. ¶¶ 36-41).

On Sunday, May 21, 2006, Bull died of a heart attack (Compl. ¶ 17). Plaintiff, Bull's wife, was named the Personal Representative of his estate. On December 4, 2006, Plaintiff made a formal claim to the Plan for life insurance benefits, which was denied. Plaintiff subsequently submitted a claim appeal to the Appeal Committee. After considering the claim appeal, the Appeal Committee indicated in its April 12, 2007 letter to Plaintiff that her claim was denied (1) because the decedent was not "actively at work" at the time he died, and (2) because he had not paid the full amount of his premiums for continued life insurance coverage while on lay-off prior to his death (id. ¶ 45). The Appeal Committee also notified Plaintiff that under the Plan's terms, she had 90 days after the Committee's denial to file suit under ERISA to challenge its decision. The 90-day limitations period of the Plan provides the following:

After exhaustion of the Plan's claims procedures, any further legal action taken against the Plan or its fiduciaries by a Covered Person (or other claimant) for benefits under the Plan must be filed in a court of law no later than 90 days after the Appeal Fiduciary's, or its delegate's, final decision regarding the claim.

On January 20, 2009, over twenty-one months after her claim was denied, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendants. Plaintiff's three-count complaint alleges (I) a wrongful denial of benefits claim pursuant to ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B); (II) a breach of fiduciary duty claim pursuant to ERISA § 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3); and (III) an equitable estoppel claim. In support of the § 502(a)(1)(B) claim, Plaintiff alleges that the discontinuation of the decedent's life insurance coverage, without prior written notice, violated the terms of the Plan (Compl. ¶ 51). In support of the § 502(a)(3) claim, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants, pursuant to ERISA § 404(a), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a), breached their fiduciary duty to discharge their duties with respect to the Plan solely in the interest of the Plan participants and their beneficiaries (id. ¶ 74). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants failed to consider the Plan's Subsection 4.4 amendment in denying Plaintiff's claims. Finally, Plaintiff requests that the Court exercise its equitable enforcement powers to estop Defendants from enforcing the 90-day limitations period in the Plan (id. ¶ 96).

Defendants proposed filing the instant motion to dismiss on the basis that Plaintiff's complaint is time-barred (Dkt 5). Following a pre-motion conference on May 12, 2009, the Court issued a briefing schedule, permitting the parties to brief the dispositive question (Dkt 15).

On July 7, 2009, Plaintiff amended her complaint because the monetary relief sought by Counts II and III of Plaintiff's original complaint essentially sought the same relief sought in Count I, namely, the benefits under the Plan. Plaintiff's amended complaint added requests for two forms of equitable relief to Counts II and III: (i) a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining Defendants from enforcing the 90-day limitations period provision; and (ii) rescission of the 90-day limitations period provision from the Plan (Am. Compl. ¶ 98).


A. Motion ...

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