Curtis L. Clark v. Prudential Financial et al

Filing 41


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O 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 United States District Court Central District of California 8 9 10 11 CURTIS L. CLARK, Plaintiff, 12 13 14 Case № 2:16-cv-04214-ODW(AFM) v. PRUDENTIAL FINANCIAL; PRUDENTIAL FINANCIAL, INC., 15 Defendants. ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS [18] AND DENYING AS MOOT PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR APPOINTMENT OF ATTORNEY [29] 16 17 I. INTRODUCTION 18 This is the fourth lawsuit that Plaintiff Curtis L. Clark has brought against his 19 former employer, Defendant Prudential Financial, Inc., arising from the termination of 20 his employment. 21 discriminated against him based on his age and that Prudential owes him benefits 22 under a welfare benefit plan. Before the Court are Prudential’s Motion to Dismiss and 23 Plaintiff’s Motion for Appointment of Attorney. For the reasons discussed below, the 24 Court GRANTS Prudential’s Motion to Dismiss without leave to amend (ECF No. 25 15), and DENIES AS MOOT Plaintiff’s Motion for Appointment of Attorney (ECF 26 No. 29). 27 28 This time, Plaintiff, appearing pro se, alleges that Prudential II. BACKGROUND Before 2004, Plaintiff was employed by Prudential for 20 years as an insurance 1 sales agent. (Compl. ¶ 7, ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff was a union member, and the terms 2 and conditions of his employment were governed by a collective bargaining 3 agreement. (Id. ¶ 22, Ex. C.) In 2004, the union informed Plaintiff that they had 4 collectively bargained for a reduction in force, which would unfortunately eliminate 5 Plaintiff’s position at the company as of December 31, 2006. (Id., Ex. C.) The 6 Reduction in Force agreement provided for several types of separation benefits for 7 eliminated employees, including an emeritus contract and a separation payment. (Id.) 8 In January 2008, Plaintiff filed a civil lawsuit against Prudential based on 9 Prudential’s failure to award him an emeritus contract. (Not. of Removal, Curtis 10 Clark v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., No. 2:08-cv-00865-GAF (PJW) (C.D. Cal. Feb. 7, 11 2008), ECF No. 1 (hereinafter Clark I).) Although Plaintiff conceded that he did not 12 qualify for the emeritus contract based on his age, he alleged that Prudential could 13 have made an exception for him. (Clark I Compl. at 16–18.) Plaintiff alleged that 14 Prudential made an exception for an unqualified Caucasian female employee, and thus 15 the failure to make an exception for Plaintiff was due to race and gender 16 discrimination. (Id. at 23–26.) In July 2009, the court found that Plaintiff did not 17 receive the emeritus contract because he was not eligible for the contract based on his 18 age, and that the other employee received the emeritus contract because she was 19 eligible. 20 judgment in Prudential’s favor on Plaintiff’s discrimination claims. (Id.) (Order, Clark I, ECF No. 44.) The Court therefore granted summary 21 In November 2009, Plaintiff filed two additional lawsuits against Prudential. 22 (Not. of Removal, Curtis Clark v. Prudential Financial Inc., No. 2:10-cv-04953-GAF 23 (PJW) (C.D. Cal. July 6, 2010), ECF No. 1 (hereinafter Clark II); Not. of Removal, 24 Curtis Clark v. Prudential Annuities, No. 2:10-cv-04954-GAF (PJW) (C.D. Cal. July 25 6, 2010, ECF No. 1 (hereinafter Clark III).) In Clark II, Plaintiff asserted a breach of 26 contract claim, in which he alleged that he was wrongfully denied separation benefits 27 under the 2004 Reduction In Force agreement. (Clark I Compl. ¶¶ 13–26.) Plaintiff 28 also alleged that he was wrongfully terminated from Prudential based on his age and 2 1 disability. (Id. ¶¶ 27–34.) In Clark III, Plaintiff asserted the same claims as he did in 2 Clark II, but he also asserted a further claim for retaliatory withholding based on 3 Prudential’s refusal to allow Plaintiff to continue “servic[ing]” his previous clients. 4 (Clark III Compl. ¶¶ 35–40.) The court dismissed both complaints without leave to 5 amend. The court concluded that the breach of contract claim was preempted by the 6 Labor Management Relations Act because it required the court to interpret a collective 7 bargaining agreement. (Order at 3, Clark II, ECF No. 15.) The court dismissed 8 Plaintiff’s disability discrimination, age discrimination, and wrongful termination 9 claims because: (1) the age discrimination claim was time-barred; (2) Plaintiff failed 10 to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to the disability discrimination 11 claim; (3) the wrongful termination claim lacked a statutory basis; and (4) the 12 discrimination and wrongful termination claims were barred by res judicata, because 13 they arose from the same nucleus of operative facts as the discrimination claims in 14 Clark I. (Order at 4–6, Clark II.) Finally, the court determined that the retaliatory 15 withholding claim was also barred by res judicata. (Order at 1–2, Clark III, ECF No. 16 18.) 17 In February 2016, Plaintiff again inquired with Prudential regarding his 18 entitlement to separation benefits. (Compl. ¶ 8.) On March 10, 2016, Prudential’s 19 Vice President informed Plaintiff’s power of attorney that Plaintiff was not entitled to 20 any benefits under the 2004 Reduction In Force agreement. (Id. ¶ 9, Ex. B.) 21 In June 2016, Plaintiff filed the current lawsuit against Prudential. (ECF No. 1.) 22 Plaintiff appears to bring: (1) two claims under the Employee Retirement Income 23 Security Act (“ERISA”) for the wrongful denial of benefits under a 2009 welfare 24 benefit plan (Compl. ¶¶ 28–30, 34–37); (2) one claim under the Age Discrimination in 25 Employment Act (id. ¶¶ 31–33); and (3) one claim under state law for the wrongful 26 denial of ERISA welfare benefits in violation of public policy (id. ¶¶ 38–40.) He also 27 makes myriad references to other discrimination statutes, but does not appear to assert 28 a claim under those statutes. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 4.) On October 28, 2016, Prudential 3 1 moved to dismiss the case. (ECF No. 18.) Plaintiff filed both an opposition and a 2 reply to the Motion. (ECF Nos. 31, 38.) Prudential also filed a reply. (ECF No. 34.) 3 Plaintiff also moved the Court to appoint an attorney for him. 4 Prudential opposed the motion, and Plaintiff replied. (ECF Nos. 35, 39.) 5 motions are now before the Court for consideration. 6 III. (ECF No. 29.) Both LEGAL STANDARD 7 A court may dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for lack of a cognizable 8 legal theory or insufficient facts pleaded to support an otherwise cognizable legal 9 theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep’t, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). To 10 survive a dismissal motion, a complaint need only satisfy the minimal notice pleading 11 requirements of Rule 8(a)(2)—a short and plain statement of the claim. Porter v. 12 Jones, 319 F.3d 483, 494 (9th Cir. 2003). The factual “allegations must be enough to 13 raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 14 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). That is, the complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, 15 accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. 16 Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). 17 The determination whether a complaint satisfies the plausibility standard is a 18 “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial 19 experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. A court is generally limited to the 20 pleadings and must construe all “factual allegations set forth in the complaint . . . as 21 true and . . . in the light most favorable” to the plaintiff. Lee v. City of L.A., 250 F.3d 22 668, 688 (9th Cir. 2001). But a court need not blindly accept conclusory allegations, 23 unwarranted deductions of fact, and unreasonable inferences. Sprewell v. Golden 24 State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001). 25 A court should freely give leave to amend a complaint that has been dismissed, 26 even if not requested by the plaintiff. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a); Lopez v. Smith, 203 27 F.3d 1122, 1130 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). However, a court may deny leave to 28 amend when it “determines that the allegation of other facts consistent with the 4 1 challenged pleading could not possibly cure the deficiency.” Schreiber Distrib. Co. v. 2 Serv-Well Furniture Co., 806 F.2d 1393, 1401 (9th Cir. 1986). 3 IV. DISCUSSION 4 The Court concludes that Plaintiff’s discrimination claim is barred by claim 5 preclusion. The Court also concludes that Plaintiff’s own allegations show that he is 6 not entitled to benefits under the 2009 Plan. Finally, the Court finds that Plaintiff 7 cannot state a claim under state law for an ERISA violation. 8 dismisses Plaintiff’s claims without leave to amend. 9 A. Thus, the Court Claim Preclusion 10 “Res judicata is applicable whenever there is (1) an identity of claims, (2) a 11 final judgment on the merits, and (3) privity between parties.” Tahoe-Sierra Pres. 12 Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency, 322 F.3d 1064, 1077 (9th Cir. 2003). 13 “Identity of claims exists when two suits arise from the same transactional nucleus of 14 facts. Newly articulated claims based on the same nucleus of facts may still be subject 15 to a res judicata finding if the claims could have been brought in the earlier action.” 16 Id. (citations, brackets, and internal quotation marks omitted). Here, Plaintiff has repeatedly litigated from all angles both the propriety of his 17 18 termination from Prudential and the terms of his separation. Indeed, Plaintiff 19 expressly litigated a state law age discrimination claim in Clark II and Clark III 20 (which he also could have asserted in Clark I). 21 judgment on the merits in all three actions against Plaintiff. Thus, Plaintiff cannot 22 now reassert a further age discrimination claim, even though it arises under federal 23 law instead of state law. 24 B. Moreover, the court entered a 2009 Welfare Benefit Plan Plaintiff asserts that he is entitled to benefits under the 2009 Plan.1 “[A]n 25 26 27 28 1 The Court incorporates the 2009 plan by reference. (Def.’s Req. for Judicial Notice, Ex. N, ECF No. 18-1.) United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003) (“Even if a document is not attached to a complaint, it may be incorporated by reference into a complaint if the plaintiff refers extensively to the document or the document forms the basis of the plaintiff’s claim. The 5 1 ERISA plan participant or beneficiary [may] bring an action in district court ‘to 2 recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the 3 terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the 4 plan.’” Vaught v. Scottsdale Healthcare Corp. Health Plan, 546 F.3d 620, 626 (9th 5 Cir. 2008) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B)). “[A] denial of benefits challenged 6 under § 1132(a)(1)(B) is to be reviewed under a de novo standard unless the benefit 7 plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine 8 eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan.” Firestone Tire & Rubber 9 Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). 10 Here, Prudential does not address the appropriate standard of review, and thus 11 the Court conducts a de novo review of the plan terms. The 2009 Plan provides that 12 “any . . . employee . . . who is a sales employee covered by the terms of a collective 13 bargaining agreement . . . shall not be an Employee (or eligible for benefits) under the 14 Plan.” (Def.’s Req. for Judicial Notice, Ex. N, section 2.12(i), ECF No. 18-2.) Here, 15 Plaintiff concedes in his complaint that he is a sales employee, that he was a union 16 member while employed at Prudential, and thus that the terms and conditions of his 17 employment—including his termination from the company—were governed under a 18 collective bargaining agreement. (Compl. ¶¶ 7, 22, Ex. C.) Consequently, Plaintiff is 19 not entitled to benefits under the 2009 Plan. 20 C. ERISA State Law Claim 21 Finally, Plaintiff purports to assert a claim for violating “the established 22 governmental public policy in the State of California to provide retirement benefits in 23 violation of ERISA.” 24 recognized a claim for violation of state public policy for failure to provide ERISA 25 benefits. Moreover, given ERISA’s broad preemption provision, and the clear lack of (Compl. ¶ 9.) To this Court’s knowledge, no court has 26 27 28 defendant may offer such a document, and the district court may treat such a document as part of the complaint, and thus may assume that its contents are true for purposes of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” (citations omitted)). 6 1 any applicable savings clause, the Court concludes that Plaintiff cannot state any such 2 claim. See, e.g., Fossen v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Montana, Inc., 660 F.3d 1102, 3 1108 (9th Cir. 2011) (“ERISA broadly preempts ‘any and all State laws insofar as they 4 may now or hereafter relate to any [covered] employee benefit plan.’” (quoting 29 5 U.S.C. § 1144(a))); Baker v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Corp., 608 F. Supp. 1315, 6 1322 (N.D. Cal. 1984) (“To the extent that plaintiff’s claim alleges discharge in 7 violation of a public policy regarding employment benefits, it is pre-empted by § 510 8 of ERISA.”). 9 D. Leave to Amend 10 The Court sees no reason to grant leave to amend. Plaintiff’s discrimination 11 claim is barred by claim preclusion, and no amendment can change that fact. 12 Moreover, Plaintiff’s claim for benefits under the 2009 Plan fails based on the 13 allegations already in the complaint. Because Plaintiff cannot plead any new and 14 consistent allegations to avoid this, the dismissal should be without leave to amend. 15 Finally, Plaintiff’s state law claim is preempted by ERISA, and—again—no new 16 allegations can change that. 17 V. CONCLUSION 18 For the reasons discussed above, the Court GRANTS Defendant’s Motion to 19 Dismiss without leave to amend. (ECF No. 15.) The Court DENIES AS MOOT 20 Plaintiff’s Motion for Appointment of Attorney. (ECF No. 29.) 21 22 IT IS SO ORDERED. 23 24 January 11, 2017 25 26 27 28 ____________________________________ OTIS D. WRIGHT, II UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 7

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