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Gordon v. Chrysler Group, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

February 2, 2018

EUNICE GORDON, on behalf of the Estate of RAYMOND O'NEIL GORDON, SR., and EUNICE GORDON, Individually, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRYSLER GROUP, LLC FCA U.S. LLC-UAW PENSION PLAN, an employee benefit plan, Defendant.

          Sean F. Cox District Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ANTHONY P. PATTI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. RECOMMENDATION:

         The Court should GRANT Defendant's motion for judgment on the administrative record (DE 17) and DENY Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the administrative record (DE 19).

         II. REPORT:

         A. Background and Pending Motions

         On April 5, 2016, Eunice Gordon filed the instant lawsuit for surviving spouse benefits under Defendant's pension plan, in which Plaintiff delineates the following causes of action: (I) violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and wrongful denial of full surviving spouse benefits, and (II) declaratory judgment. The second count is, essentially, a mislabeled prayer for relief, in addition to which Plaintiff's “demand for relief” seeks “costs, interest, [and] attorney fees . . . .” (DE 1 ¶¶ 28-32; see also DE 1 ¶ 8 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2201 (“Creation of remedy”)).) See Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671 (1950) (operation of Declaratory Judgment Act “‘is procedural only.'”) (quoting Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 240 (1937)); see also 12 Moore's Federal Practice, § 57.04[1] (Matthew Bender 3d Ed.). It is a tool which “enable[s] litigants to narrow the issues, speed the decision, and settle the controversy . . . ” expeditiously. 12 Moore's, § 57.03[2] (citations omitted).

         Defendant answered the complaint on October 13, 2016, denying any liability and seeking an award of costs, including attorney fees. (DE 8.) The parties have filed cross motions for judgment on the administrative record, and Defendant has filed a timely response. (DEs 17, 19, 20, 22.) Judge Cox has referred these motions to me for a report and recommendation.

         B. Standard of Review

         The first issue requiring the Court's attention is the parties' dispute over the proper standard of review. Defendant argues that the Court should apply the “deferential arbitrary and capricious” standard of review, while Plaintiff advocates that her claim for “equitable relief” should be assessed under the de novo standard of review. (DE 19 at 11-13.)

         Defendant disagrees with the characterization of the complaint as seeking equitable relief. (DE 22 at 15.) Plaintiff's sole cause of action is titled, “violation of ERISA and wrongful denial of full surviving spouse benefits.” Also, while some of the underlying paragraphs use terms such as “promises” and “representations, ” the essence of Plaintiff's claim is an alleged improper denial of “full surviving spouse benefits, ” namely:

Upon the death of Raymond Gordon, his surviving spouse Eunice Gordon requested said benefits from Defendant stating that she was entitled to surviving spouse benefits in accordance with the representations had been made to her by Defendants.
Plaintiffs were thereafter notified by the pension plan board of administration that Eunice Gordon's claim for full surviving spouse benefits in accordance with promises made to her by agents and representatives of the pension board, interest on unpaid benefits commencing back to the date of her claim (well over one year), as well attorney fees and a full accounting of her entitlement of benefits was denied.

(See DE 1 ¶¶ 22, 23, 27 (emphases added).) Thus, in title and in substance, Count I asserts Plaintiff's entitlement to surviving spouse benefits under the pension plan. (See also DE 1 ¶¶ 19, 20, 24.)

         Moreover, as noted above, Count II seeks a “declaratory judgment[, ]” although this is a distinct legal remedy from injunctive (or equitable) relief, as it requires a “lesser showing than injunctive relief[.]” 12 Moore's, § 57.07; see also Remedy: Equitable Remedy, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) at 1485 (including injunction among equitable remedies). See also Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 466, 471 (1974) (Congress intended the Declaratory Judgment Act “to act as an alternative to the strong medicine of the injunction . . . ” and “to make declaratory relief available in cases where an injunction would be inappropriate.”). In sum, and as Plaintiff generally asserts, she “seeks a declaration of her rights and entitlement to surviving spouse benefits under Defendant's pension plan as the surviving spouse.” (DE 1 ¶ 16 (emphases added).)[1]

         It seems that Plaintiff's sole cause of action is based upon 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B). (DE 1 ¶¶ 7, 24.) “[A] denial of benefits challenged under § 1132(a)(1)(B) is to be reviewed under a de novo standard unless the benefit plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan.” Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). Plaintiff acknowledges this. (DE 19 at 11.) “If a plan affords such discretion to an administrator or fiduciary, we review the denial of benefits only to determine if it was ‘arbitrary and capricious, ' . . . and will uphold his decision if it ...


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