Robert Trujillo v. Landmark Media Enterprises LLC
UNPUBLISHED PER CURIAM OPINION filed. Originating case number: 2:15-cv-00518-RAJ-RJK. Copies to all parties and the district court/agency. . Mailed to: Roberto Trujillo. [16-1264]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff – Appellant,
LANDMARK MEDIA ENTERPRISES, LLC; DOMINION ENTERPRISES,
INC.; FRANK BATTEN, JR.; THERESA F. BLEVINS; SUSAN R. BLAKE;
JACK J. ROSS; MELODI ALBERT,
Defendants – Appellees.
--------------------------------SECRETARY OF LABOR,
Amicus Supporting Appellant.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at
Norfolk. Raymond A. Jackson, District Judge. (2:15-cv-00518-RAJ-RJK)
Argued: March 21, 2017
Before MOTZ, TRAXLER, and AGEE, Circuit Judges.
Reversed and remanded by unpublished per curiam opinion.
Decided: May 11, 2017
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ARGUED: Roberto Trujillo, Richmond, Virginia, Appellant Pro Se. William McCardell
Furr, WILLCOX & SAVAGE, P.C., Norfolk, Virginia, for Appellees. Stephen
Silverman, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Washington, D.C., for
Amicus Curiae. ON BRIEF: Jerrauld C.C. Jones, WILLCOX & SAVAGE, P.C.,
Norfolk, Virginia, for Appellees. M. Patricia Smith, Solicitor of Labor, G. William Scott,
Associate Solicitor for Plan Benefits Security, Thomas Tso, Counsel for Appellate and
Special Litigation, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Washington, D.C.,
for Amicus Curiae.
Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
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Roberto Trujillo appeals a district court order that primarily dismisses his claim
alleging retaliation under section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act
of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1140. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). We reverse.
The facts alleged in the complaint are as follows. Dominion Enterprises, Inc.,
hired Trujillo in January 2015 as its Director of Benefits and Safety. After Trujillo
assumed that position, his name was added to the signatory authority list for Dominion’s
§ 401(k) plan, as well as the retirement plan of Dominion’s parent company, Appellee
Landmark Media Enterprises, LLC.
The Vanguard Group, an asset management
company, administered these retirement plans. *
Around May 2015, as part of an audit, Trujillo discovered that Vanguard had not
been properly vesting participants in the Landmark retirement plan, causing participants
who should have been vesting to lose employer contribution matching funds. These
funds were diverted to Landmark’s forfeiture account, where they were used to benefit
Landmark. The handling of these funds was pursuant to the directions of Landmark;
Appellee Teresa F. Blevins, the CFO of Landmark and Dominion; and Appellee Susan R.
Blake, the Vice President of Human Resources for Landmark and Dominion, all of whom
are fiduciaries of the Landmark retirement plan under ERISA, see 29 U.S.C. § 1002(a).
Because this appeal stems from the grant of a motion to dismiss, we accept as
true all well-pled facts in Trujillo’s complaint and construe them in the light most
favorable to him. See Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250,
255 (4th Cir. 2009).
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Trujillo also discovered during an audit of the Dominion § 401(k) plan that certain
employee contributions were not being properly segregated from payroll. In connection
with these audits, Trujillo updated Blevins and Blake on the nature and extent of the
errors. Trujillo submitted weekly reports, coordinated meetings with Blevins’s staff, and
discussed matters with Landmark’s and Dominion’s ERISA counsel.
In September 2015, one month before the deadline for filing IRS Form 5500, an
annual report required by ERISA that must be filed with the Department of Labor and the
Internal Revenue Service, Blevins replaced the firm it had initially retained to conduct the
audits with a local auditing firm on a trial basis because the firm’s staff included a newly
hired senior manager who was a former executive of Landmark and Dominion. Blevins
also transferred internal management of the benefit plan audits from the benefits
department to her finance and accounting staff, and then threatened, a week before the
Form 5500 deadline in October, not to sign off on financial statements required to
complete the Form 5500 filings for the retirement plans.
In October 2015, Trujillo met with, among others, the Vice President of Tax and
Audit for Landmark, ERISA counsel, and counsel that Blevins had hired for a second
opinion. As Trujillo finalized efforts to complete the required Form 5500s, Dominion’s
Chief Accounting Officer advised Trujillo that the Appellees would follow Trujillo’s
recommended strategy for completing the Form 5500 filings. Before signing the Form
5500s, Trujillo made edits to the “rep letters” – letters by management confirming
representations made to the independent auditor – that were to be attached to the Form
5500s, detailing how the errors in the retirement plans violated ERISA.
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rejected these edits but submitted the forms with Trujillo’s signature by the October 15
deadline. Trujillo was fired less than a week later.
In December 2015, Trujillo filed a complaint in the district court alleging that he
was terminated in retaliation for giving information regarding the ERISA violations in the
course of the plan audits, in violation of ERISA section 510, 29 U.S.C. § 1140, and that
the Appellees defamed him by falsely claiming that he submitted false reviews of
Dominion on Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees rate their
companies. The Appellees moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, see Fed. R. Civ.
P. 12(b)(6), and Trujillo opposed the motion.
The district court granted Appellees’ motion and dismissed Trujillo’s complaint.
Relying on our decision in King v. Marriott International, Inc., 337 F.3d 421 (4th Cir.
2003), the court ruled that Trujillo failed to allege that he testified or gave information in
any “inquiry or proceeding.” After dismissing Trujillo’s ERISA claim, his sole federal
claim, the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state-law
defamation claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367.
Trujillo now contends that the district court erred in dismissing his ERISA claim.
We review de novo a district court’s dismissal of an action under Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. See Trejo v. Ryman Hosp. Props.,
Inc., 795 F.3d 442, 445-46 (4th Cir. 2015). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint
must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is
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plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation
The fact that a plaintiff’s claim does “not fall within the four corners of our prior
case law . . . does not justify dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). On the contrary, Rule
12(b)(6) dismissals are especially disfavored in cases where the complaint sets forth a
novel legal theory that can best be assessed after factual development.” Wright v. North
Carolina, 787 F.3d 256, 263 (4th Cir. 2015). “Indeed, as the law firms up in unsettled
areas, it may be more feasible to dismiss weaker cases on the pleadings; otherwise,
plaintiffs should be given an opportunity to develop evidence before the merits are
resolved.” Id. (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted).
ERISA’s anti-retaliation statute reads, in pertinent part: “It shall be unlawful for
any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, or discriminate against any person because
he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding
relating to [ERISA].” 29 U.S.C. § 1140. In King, we analyzed the proper scope of the
phrase “inquiry or proceeding.” Relying on a case interpreting “proceeding” in the Fair
Labor Standards Act, and noting that “testified or is about to testify” precedes “inquiry or
proceeding,” we ruled that “inquiry or proceeding” in section 510 “is limited to the legal
or administrative, or at least to something more formal than written or oral complaints
made to a supervisor.” King, 337 F.3d at 427. Thus, because the plaintiff in King had
not testified in a proceeding or given information in such a proceeding, and instead had
done nothing more than “file internal complaints with some of her co-workers, her
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supervisor, and some of Marriott’s attorneys” regarding the transfer of certain funds, her
actions were not protected under section 510. Id. at 428.
Here, Trujillo and the Secretary of Labor, in an amicus brief, argue that Trujillo’s
complaint sufficiently alleged that he was terminated for giving information in an
“inquiry” because he alleged that he was fired for giving information in legally required
audits and in the preparation of the Form 5500.
Appellees dispute that Trujillo’s
complaint adequately alleges that he was terminated for participating in the audits or for
filing a Form 5500. Appellees alternatively contend that neither such audits nor a Form
5500 filing constitutes an “inquiry” within the meaning of section 510.
Given the novel nature of the legal questions presented in this case regarding the
scope of the term “inquiry or proceeding,” we conclude that allowing for greater factual
development before delving into these critical questions of statutory interpretation is the
most prudent course. See Wright, 787 F.3d at 263. Once the record more clearly reflects
Trujillo’s exact role in the audits and the precise reasons for his various communications,
for example, the district court and this court will be much better positioned to address the
important and unresolved legal questions that this case presents. See id. We therefore
reverse the dismissal of Trujillo’s complaint.
For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the dismissal of Trujillo’s complaint and
remand for further proceedings.
REVERSED AND REMANDED
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