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Trinkle v. Hammer Trucking, Inc.

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

May 15, 2018

DARROLL C. TRINKLE Plaintiff,
v.
HAMMER TRUCKING, INC. and ROBERT NIETHAMMER, Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [#24]

          Denise Page Hood Chief Judge, United States District Court

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff 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 Judgment.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         In 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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, Ex. 1.

         On July 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.

         Plaintiff 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.[1]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 ...

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