United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
DARROLL C. TRINKLE Plaintiff,
HAMMER TRUCKING, INC. and ROBERT NIETHAMMER, Defendants.
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY
Page Hood Chief Judge, United States District Court
worked as a truck driver for Defendant Hammer Trucking, Inc.
(“Hammer”) from August 2000 until approximately
July 31, 2013. On December 15, 2016, Plaintiff sued
Defendants for alleged interference with, and retaliation
for, the exercise of his ERISA rights, in violation of 29
U.S.C. § 1140. On February 5, 2018, Defendants filed a
Motion for Summary Judgment. [Dkt. No. 24] The Motion has
been fully briefed, and a hearing on the Motion for Summary
Judgment was held on April 11, 2018. For the reasons that
follow, the Court denies Defendants' Motion for Summary
began working for Hammer in August 2000, and he held a valid
commercial driver's license (“CDL”), which is
required under State of Michigan law to drive commercial
trucks. Plaintiff was a participant in the “Hammer
Trucking, Inc. 401(k) Profit Sharing Plan”
(“Plan”), an employee pension benefit plan within
the meaning of ERISA In 2004, Plaintiff was diagnosed with
diabetes mellitus, type 2. At that time, Plaintiff was
prescribed an oral medication and his diabetes did not affect
his ability to maintain his CDL or drive trucks for Hammer.
According to Plaintiff's physician, John O'Brien, MD
(“Dr. O'Brien”), by March 2010, Plaintiff had
become insulin dependent, Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 5 at 11-12, but
Plaintiff never notified Defendants that he had become
insulin dependent. Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 3 at 16-17; Ex. 2 at 71.
passed his physical and was able to renew his CDL in November
2011, even though he was insulin dependent. Under Michigan
law, a person who is insulin dependent cannot receive a CDL
unless he or she obtained a waiver from the State of Michigan
after jointly - with his or her employer - an application for
such a waiver. See M.C.L. 480.12(d), 480.12(2).
Plaintiff never asked Hammer, and never on his own attempted,
to apply for a waiver. According to Dr. O'Brien,
Plaintiff's diabetes was uncontrolled after 2010, even
with the prescribed insulin. Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 5 at 15, 28-29,
37-41; Ex. 3 at 56-57.
December 2012 or January 2013, Plaintiff had to have the big
toe on his right foot amputated due to diabetes
complications. He returned to driving for Hammer after that
surgery. In early July 2013, Plaintiff notified Gwendolyn
Niethammer, who handled Hammer's benefits, that he was
having another surgery and had the second toe on his right
foot amputated on or about July 5, 2013. During the period
between those amputations, Plaintiff began to consider
applying for Social Security Disability benefits, and he
first spoke to Dr. O'Brien about applying for Social
Security Disability benefits in January 2013. Dkt. No. 24,
Ex. 5 at 17.
states that, in July 2013, due to the costs of his illness
and hospitalization, he sought to withdraw funds from his
Plan account and asked Hammer/Gwen Niethammer for permission
to do so. He claims that, as he had done before, he asked to
borrow money from his Plan account but Gwen Niethammer denied
his request. Gwen Niethammer denies that any such
conversation took place. Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 2 at 49-52. On July
26, 2013, Dr. O'Brien completed a Medical Statement for
Social Security Disability Claim (“SSD Claim”)
for Plaintiff, declaring Plaintiff disabled from driving a
truck and describing Plaintiff's symptoms as “pain
& tingling in feet on insulin therapy - no longer able to
possess CDL.” Dkt. No. 27, Ex. 6; Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 9.
Plaintiff's claim for Social Security Disability benefits
was received by the Social Security Administration on July
29, 2013 at 10:27 a.m. Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 10; Ex. 11; Ex. 5 at
21-27; Ex. 4; Ex. 10 at 13-15.
states that he called the Plan Administrator and spoke to
Paul Stephens (the call seemingly occurred on July 29, 30, or
31, 2013 and, for purposes of this Order shall be treated as
having occurred on July 29, 2013). Plaintiff indicates that
he told Paul Stephens that he (Plaintiff) needed $10, 000 and
that Hammer was not helping Plaintiff get money from his Plan
account. Paul Stephens reportedly stated that Plaintiff could
do an “emergency medical withdrawal, ” Dkt. No.
27, Ex. 2 at 33, and Plaintiff asked Paul Stephens to get him
a $10, 000 loan from Plaintiff's Plan account.
Id. In an affidavit, Paul Stephens denies having
such a conversation with Plaintiff at that time. Dkt. No. 29,
29, 2013, approximately 2 hours after Plaintiff's Social
Security claim was filed, Patricia Dickerson, Director of
Administration for Pension Plan Services, Inc. (“Plan
Administrator”) received via facsimile an Election of
Direct Rollover for Qualifying Distribution
(“Distribution Election”) filled out in
Plaintiff's handwriting that requested distribution of
his entire Plan account. On the Distribution Election,
Plaintiff gave July 30, 2013 as his date of termination. Dkt.
No. 24, Ex. 1; Ex. 4; Ex. 3 at 42. The receipt of a
Distribution Election directly from a Plan participant was
unusual, since normally the employer (Hammer) would
communicate with Ms. Dickerson about any proposed loans from
the Plan or distributions of an entire account, so she
contacted Defendants. Dkt. No. 24, Ex 1. Defendants were
unaware of Plaintiff's intent to terminate his employment
or withdraw his entire Plan account and still understood
Plaintiff to be temporarily off work after having surgery.
Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 2 at 45, 80-81.
states that, on the same day he spoke to Paul Stephens,
Robert Niethammer called Plaintiff, scolded Plaintiff for
attempting to withdraw funds from the Plan account,
discharged Plaintiff from his employment at Hammer, and
canceled all Plaintiff's fringe benefits. Id. at
21, 47; Dkt. No. 27, Ex. 3 at 144.On that same day (July 29,
2013), Plaintiff elected to receive a distribution of his
entire Plan account, Dkt. No. 27, Ex. 4; Ex. 5, Ex. 10. The
Plan Administrator processed Plaintiff's request to
withdraw his entire Plan account, and within a couple weeks
Plaintiff was given all of the funds in his Plan account,
less the sums Plaintiff had directed to be paid for state and
federal taxes and penalties, and Plaintiff's last day of
employment for Hammer was July 31, 2013. Dkt. No. 24, Ex.1;
Ex. 3 at 65-66, 68-70. Plaintiff has not been gainfully
employed since he left Hammer, Dkt. No. 24, Ex. 3 at 52-54,
and stated at his deposition, Q: Okay, Did you try to get
another driver job?
A: No. I was done driving.
Q: Because you were not physically able, correct?
A: Correct. No, I just didn't want to go down the road
with a missile, the ...