Watson et al v. Teledyne Technologies Incorporated Pension Plan et al
ORDER granting 46 Motion to Dismiss. This action is dismissed without prejudice. Signed by Chief Judge William H. Steele on 5/5/2015. (tgw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BARNEY M. WATSON, et al.,
) CIVIL ACTION 14-0452-WS-M
INCORPORATED PENSION PLAN, et )
This matter is before the Court on the defendants’ motion to dismiss. (Doc.
46). The parties have submitted briefs and evidentiary materials in support of their
respective positions, (Docs. 47, 49, 50),1 and the motion is ripe for resolution.
After careful consideration, the Court concludes the motion is due to be granted.
According to the amended complaint, the plaintiffs in this ERISA action
were employed by the Plan sponsor. Both sought early retirement benefits under
the Plan. Such benefits are actuarially reduced, but the Plan provides eligible
participants an additional monthly benefit of $96 until age 62. (Doc. 45 at 4-5).
Plaintiff Smith sought the additional benefit and was denied. He appealed,
and the Plan administrator paid the benefit prospectively, but not retroactively to
the date Smith took early retirement. (Doc. 45 at 5).
At the time Smith won his appeal, plaintiff Watson was receiving early
retirement benefits in the form of a joint and survivor annuity. The Plan
The parties agree that the evidentiary materials may be considered on motion to
dismiss without converting it into a motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 47 at 8; Doc.
49 at 4 n.1).
administrator notified Watson that he was eligible for the additional $96 monthly
benefit but required Watson to waive the joint and survivor annuity in order to
receive the benefit. (Doc. 45 at 5-6).
Both counts of the amended complaint are grounded in 29 U.S.C. §
1132(a)(1)(B). Count One seeks a clarification of future benefits, specifically, that
conditioning payment of the $96 monthly benefit on waiver of joint and survivor
annuity violates the Plan and ERISA. Count Two seeks payment of the $96
monthly benefit. (Doc. 45 at 10-11).
The amended complaint alleges generally that the plaintiffs “have
exhausted any administrative remedies that may be available.” (Id. at 6). The
single ground of the motion to dismiss is that the plaintiffs have not exhausted
their administrative remedies.
“The law is clear in this circuit that plaintiffs in ERISA actions must
exhaust available administrative remedies before suing in federal court.” Lanfear
v. Home Depot, Inc., 1223 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal quotes omitted). The Plan
provides a “claims review procedure” that governs “[c]laims for benefits and
requests for reviews of denied claims for benefits,” which procedure involves
submission of a claim for benefits (or a request for review of a denied claim) to a
Plan Administrative Committee (“the Committee”). (Doc. 47-8 at 7-8). It is
uncontroverted that the plaintiffs did not follow this procedure, and the defendants
argue the failure is fatal. (Doc. 47 at 11-12).
The plaintiffs note that the administrative procedure addresses only
“benefits,” and they assert the procedure does not apply to them because they are
challenging “the Administrators’ interpretation of the Plan or statutory
provisions.” (Doc. 49 at 2, 3). The interpretation they challenge, however, is the
administrator’s determination that they cannot receive the $96 monthly
supplement under their preferred payment option of joint and survivor annuity but
only under the payment option of life annuity without survivorship, (id. at 1, 3;
Doc. 47-4; Doc. 47-6), which the plaintiffs expressly acknowledge to be a
“determination of the benefit level.” (Id. at 5). Count One, while nominally
seeking a clarification of “future rights to benefits,” (id. at 10), in reality seeks a
declaration that they are even now entitled to the monthly benefit under their
preferred payment option. (Id. at 10-11).
The plaintiffs are also challenging the administrator’s determination not to
pay the monthly supplement retroactively, and Count Two, which seeks those
payments, is explicitly labeled a “claim for benefits.” (Doc. 45 at 11).
In short, by the plaintiffs’ own pleading and argument they are seeking Plan
benefits in excess of those they were awarded by the administrator. The Plan thus
plainly required them to file a claim with the Committee for those benefits and, if
denied, to seek review from the Committee of that denial. Since it is
uncontroverted that the plaintiffs did neither of these things, they have failed to
exhaust their administrative remedies.
The plaintiffs insist they were “denied meaningful access to the
administrative review scheme.” (Doc. 49 at 4). The argument hinges on the
premise that the Plan’s claims review procedure does not apply and that they could
not have invoked some other, hidden “internal appeals process” of which they
were never informed. (Id. at 3). Because the claims review procedure does apply,
it is irrelevant whether there was some other administrative route of which they
The plaintiffs’ only other argument is that “any appeal would be futile.”
(Doc. 49 at 2). This is not truly an argument but merely an unelaborated ipse
dixit, which raises nothing for review.
The defendants have not suggested the existence of such a procedure. Instead,
they have pointed only to the claims review procedure discussed in text.
The plaintiffs argue that “[r]emand is the proper remedy if the Court is
persuaded that exhaustion is not excused.” (Doc. 49 at 7). The defendants
respond that when, as here, a plaintiff has bypassed the administrative procedure
through no fault of the defendant, the appropriate remedy is dismissal without
prejudice. (Doc. 50 at 6-7). The Court agrees with the defendants. The plaintiffs
rely on Eleventh Circuit precedent which states only that “the usual remedy is …
remand to the plan administrator” when the defendant has issued “an inadequate
benefits termination letter,” that is, when the defendant is at fault. Counts v.
American General Life and Accident Insurance Co., 111 F.3d 105, 108 (11th Cir.
1997). When the plaintiff has simply foregone an available administrative
procedure, appellate courts have routinely approved of dismissal without
See, e.g., Angevine v. Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan, 646 F.3d 1034,
1038 (8 Cir. 2011) (where the defendant did not invoke an available administrative
remedy, the trial court properly dismissed the claim); Gayle v. United Parcel Service,
Inc., 401 F.3d 222, 230 (4th Cir. 2005) (dismissal without prejudice was an appropriate
remedy when “the claimants resorted to federal court without availing themselves of the
plan process first”); Zhou v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, 295 F.3d 677, 67980 (7th Cir. 2002) (where the plaintiff filed suit rather than pursue an administrative
appeal, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the action without
prejudice); Communications Workers of America v. American Telephone and Telegraph
Co., 40 F.3d 426, 432, 434 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (where one plaintiff had filed no initial claim
and the others had filed no appeal of the initial denial of their claims, the trial court had
the choice of remand or dismissal without prejudice); Leak v. CIGNA Healthcare, 423
Fed. Appx. 53, 54 (2nd Cir. 2011) (where the plaintiff “chose to go to federal court rather
than to pursue the available administrative remedies,” her lawsuit was “properly
dismissed for failure to exhaust”) (internal quotes omitted); Rivera-Diaz v. American
Airlines, Inc., 2000 WL 1022888 at *1 (1st Cir. 2000) (where the plaintiffs sued “without
ever having applied for benefits,” the trial court was instructed to dismiss without
For the reasons set forth above, the defendant’s motion to dismiss is
granted. This action is dismissed without prejudice.
DONE and ORDERED this 5th day of May, 2015.
s/ WILLIAM H. STEELE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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