Lubin et al v. AT & T Retirement Savings Plan
ORDER granting 38 Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. on 7/17/2015. (rss)
United States District Court
Southern District of Florida
Pauline Lubin and Frances Koryn,
AT&T Retirement Savings Plan,
) Civil Action No. 14-81263-Civ-Scola
Order Granting Defendant’s Motion For Summary Judgment
A court must affirm an ERISA-plan administrator’s decision regarding
benefits if the decision was correct. AT&T Retirement Savings Plan followed its
ERISA plan’s default beneficiary rules in paying life-insurance benefits to the
daughter of a deceased employee. The employee’s sisters challenge that
decision, because the employee’s daughter had been adopted by her stepfather. The Court concludes that AT&T Retirement Savings Plan’s decision to
pay the benefits was correct, and grants its summary-judgment motion.
Austin E. Hardy worked for an AT&T company and participated in the
AT&T Retirement Savings Plan. (Def.’s Stmt. Facts ¶¶ 1, 6, ECF No. 39.) As
part of the Savings Plan, Hardy had a life insurance benefit. Hardy died in
January 2013. (Id. ¶ 6.) In February 2013, David Caudill, the executor of
Hardy’s estate, contacted the AT&T Retirement Savings Plan’s recordkeeper to
notify the Plan of Hardy’s death. (Id. ¶ 9.) Caudill told the recordkeeper that
Hardy’s next of kin are Jennifer Krokey, Hardy’s daughter, as well as Pauline
Lubin and Frances Koryn, Hardy’s two sisters.
researched to determine if Hardy had designated a beneficiary for his lifeinsurance policy. (Id. ¶ 11.) He had not. (Id.)
The terms of the AT&T Retirement Savings Plan permit an employee to
designate a beneficiary to receive benefits, but if no beneficiary is designated
the Plan must distribute benefits in accordance with the AT&T Rules for
Employee Beneficiary Designations. (Id. (citing Summ. Plan Description 9, ECF
No. 22-1).) This section is titled “Default Rules: When you do not make a
designation or you have no surviving beneficiary.” (Summ. Plan Description 9,
ECF No. 22-1.) The section requires the Plan administrator to distribute
benefits in the following manner: first to a surviving spouse, second to a legally
recognized partner, third to a surviving child or children, fourth to a surviving
parent or parents, fifth to a surviving sibling or siblings. (Id.) The Plan defines
the term child as a person related “by birth or by adoption and not through
In keeping with the terms of the AT&T Retirement Savings Plan, the Plan
recordkeeper first determined that Hardy had no surviving spouse or legally
recognized partner. (Def.’s Stmt. Facts ¶ 12, ECF No. 39.) Recognizing that
the next class of default beneficiaries would be any of Hardy’s children, and
having been told by Caudill that Jennifer Krokey was Hardy’s daughter, the
recordkeeper sent Krokey a beneficiary affidavit form. (Id. ¶ 13.) Krokey
returned the sworn beneficiary affidavit, confirming that she was Hardy’s only
surviving child. (Id. ¶ 13; see also Miola Decl. ¶ 8 & Ex. B, ECF Nos. 38-2 &
This last point—whether Krokey was Hardy’s surviving child—is the sole
point of contention between the Plaintiffs, Pauline Lubin and Frances Koryn,
and the Defendant. Lubin and Koryn’s position is that since the default
designation “indicates that an adopted daughter could be a default beneficiary .
. by implication, a natural-born offspring that has been adopted ‘away’ from a
Plan Participant would not be considered as a proper beneficiary.” (Resp. 3,
ECF No. 43.) They argue that since Krokey’s step-father adopted her, she
should not be considered Hardy’s surviving child. In order to resolve this
dispute the Court must decide if AT&T Retirement Savings Plan’s
determination that Krokey was Hardy’s surviving child was wrong.
AT&T Retirement Savings Plan has moved for summary judgment,
arguing first that Lubin and Koryn failed to exhaust their administrative
remedies, and alternatively, that the decision to pay the benefits to Krokey was
correct. As explained in this Order, the Court concludes that Lubin and Koryn
were not required to exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing this
lawsuit, but that AT&T Retirement Savings Plan’s decision was correct. The
ultimate issue is presented first, followed by the procedural decisions.
2. AT&T Retirement Savings Plan was correct in deciding that Krokey
was Hardy’s surviving child.
ERISA 1 requires that an employee-benefit-plan administrator act in
accordance with the documents governing the plan. Kennedy v. Plan Adm’r for
DuPont Sav. & Inv. Plan, 555 U.S. 285, 300 (2009). This obligation—to comply
with the plan documents—includes “when it comes time to pay benefits.” Id. at
300–01 (“ERISA’s statutory scheme is built around reliance on the face of
written plan documents.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§
forecloses any justification for enquiries into nice expressions of intent, in favor
of the virtues of adhering to an uncomplicated rule: simple administration,
avoiding double liability, and ensuring that beneficiaries get what’s coming
quickly, without the folderol essential under less-certain rules.” Id. at 301
(internal quotation marks omitted). In short, there is a bright-line rule when it
comes to paying benefits under an ERISA plan: a plan administrator must
identify the beneficiary specified by the plan documents and promptly pay that
person. See id. at 302–03.
In this case, Lubin and Koryn offer no support for their position. The
Plan documents required AT&T Retirement Savings Plan to pay the default
beneficiary since Hardy had not previously designated a beneficiary. AT&T
Retirement Savings Plan determined that Hardy did not have a surviving
spouse or legally recognized partner, but did have a child related by birth—
Jennifer Krokey. Lubin and Koryn contend that Krokey should not be
considered a child as that term is defined by the Plan documents because she
was adopted by her step-father. And since the Plan documents contemplate
that an adopted child can be a default beneficiary, “by implication,” Krokey,
who has been “adopted away” from Hardy, should not be considered as a
default beneficiary. (Resp. 3, ECF No. 43.)
Lubin and Koryn’s reading of the Plan documents does not comport with
the usual of rules of ERISA plan interpretation. When interpreting ERISA
plans, courts turn to the law of trusts, which serves as a backdrop for ERISA.
See Kennedy, 555 U.S. at 294. Within the law of trusts, one principle of
contract interpretation is a doctrine known as expressio unius est exclusio
alterius (the express mention of one thing excludes all others). In re Celotex
Corp., 487 F.3d 1320, 1334 (11th Cir. 2007). This doctrine instructs “that
when certain matters are mentioned in a contract, other similar matters not
mentioned were intended to be excluded. Id.; accord Black’s Law Dictionary
701 (10th ed. 2014) (explaining that the doctrine holds “that to express or
include one thing implies the exclusion of the other, or of the alternative”).
Here, the Plan documents state that a child is a person “related by birth
or by adoption and not through marriage.” (Summ. Plan Description 9, ECF
No. 22-1.) Lubin and Koryn ask the Court to read this passage as stating that
a child is a person related by birth or by adoption and not through marriage,
unless the person related by birth was later adopted away from the plan
participant. (See Resp. 3, ECF No. 43.) But the Plan provides a complete list of
who is, and who is not considered a child—it is not an illustrative list. Since
the category of persons who are not children is limited to persons related
through marriage, the Court may not read in an additional category of persons
who are not children (i.e., persons who are related by birth but who are later
3. Lubin and Koryn are excused
AT&T Retirement Savings Plan argues that Lubin and Koryn’s claims fail
because they failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. According to
AT&T, the Plan requires any person challenging a benefits decision to submit a
written appeal to the Plan recordkeeper; and if this administrative appeal
process is not timely complied with, the claimant may not initiate a lawsuit
regarding the claim. (Mot. Summ. J. 8–9, ECF No. 38.) Lubin and Koryn
respond that it would be inequitable to hold them to the administrative-appeal
deadlines in the Plan because they were never given a copy of the Plan
documents (containing the deadlines) until after they initiated suit—despite
Caudill’s request for “a copy of the AT&T Plan which contains the
administrative procedures and plan rules.” (Resp. 5–6, ECF No. 43; Letter from
David A. Caudill, Personal Rep. Hardy Estate, to Scott Houle, Fidelity
Workplace Servs. (Apr. 5, 2013), ECF No. 38-3 (Ex. E).) AT&T Retirement
Savings Plan argues that when Caudill requested the Plan documents he was
acting on behalf of the Hardy Estate, and not Lubin and Koryn. It also argues
that Lubin and Koryn should still be held to the administrative deadlines
because it was “no secret” that additional Plan documents existed. (Mot.
Summ. J. 6–7, ECF No. 38.)
“[P]laintiffs in ERISA actions must exhaust available administrative
remedies before suing in federal court” Perrino v. S. Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 209
F.3d 1309, 1315 (11th Cir. 2000). But there are several exceptions to this rule.
Id. A plan administrator’s failure to provide requested plan documents is one
ground to excuse a plaintiff from the usual exhaustion-of-administrativeremedies requirement. Curry v. Contract Fabricators Inc. Profit Sharing Plan,
891 F.2d 842, 846-47 (11th Cir. 1990) (“When a plan administrator in control
of the available review procedures denies a claimant meaningful access to
those procedures, the district court has discretion not to require exhaustion.”)
abrogated on other grounds by Murphy v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 247
F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2001).
In this case, Caudill testified that he was representing Lubin and Koryn
when he requested Plan documents from AT&T Retirement Savings Plan.
(Caudill Decl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 43-1.) This testimony is uncontroverted. It is also
undisputed that AT&T Retirement Savings Plan did not send Caudill a copy of
the Plan documents containing the appeal deadlines until after Lubin and
Koryn filed their initial lawsuit. (Compare Pl.’s Stmt. Facts ¶ 26, ECF No. 44
with Reply 2, ECF No. 46.) Given these facts, AT&T Retirement Savings Plan
“denied meaningful access to the administrative review scheme” by never
timely informing Lubin and Koryn of the exhaustion-of-administrative-remedies
requirement and the corresponding deadlines. See Curry, 891 F.2d at 846-47.
Lubin and Koryn are excused from the exhaustion-of-administrative-remedies
requirement under these circumstances.
4. It would be inequitable and inefficient to remand this matter.
Lubin and Koryn request the matter be remanded for an administrative
ruling, but remand is not appropriate in this case. There are several reasons
for requiring a full administrative review of ERISA claims before proceeding to
federal court, including: (1) to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits, (2) to
minimize the cost of dispute resolution, (3) to enhance the plan’s trustees’
ability to carry out their fiduciary duties expertly and efficiently by preventing
premature judicial intervention in the decision-making process, and (4) to allow
prior fully considered actions by pension plan trustees to assist courts if the
dispute is eventually litigated. Perrino v. S. Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 209 F.3d 1309,
1315 (11th Cir. 2000).
Remanding this case would not serve any of these justifications. This is
not a difficult ERISA case involving complicated pension details where a
fiduciary’s analysis would aid the Court in resolving the dispute. The parties
have already extensively litigated this matter. Remanding it would only add to
their expenses in resolving the ultimate issue. And even after the Plan
administrator issued its ruling, the parties would likely find themselves back
before this same court, presenting the same issue for resolution. In short,
remanding this case would be a waste of everyone’s time, money, and
resources—completely inconsistent with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1. See
Weaver v. Phoenix Home Life Mut. Ins. Co., 990 F.2d 154, 159 (4th Cir. 1993)
(explaining that remand was “unnecessary” because the facts of the case
clearly revealed the correct result) (cited in Counts v. Am. Gen. Life & Accident
Ins. Co., 111 F.3d 105, 108 (11th Cir. 1997)).
There is no genuine issue over any material facts in this case. Applying a
de novo standard of review to AT&T Retirement Savings Plan’s decision to pay
the Plan benefits to Hardy’s surviving daughter, Jennifer Krokey, the Court
cannot disagree with that decision. Since the Court cannot say that AT&T
Retirement Savings Plan’s decision was wrong, the Court must affirm that
decision and grant AT&T’s summary-judgment motion. See Capone v. Aetna
Life Ins. Co., 592 F.3d 1189, 1195–96 (11th Cir. 2010).
After considering the motion for summary judgment, the record, and the
relevant legal authorities, the Court grants the motion (ECF No. 38) for the
reasons explained in this Order.
Done and ordered in chambers at Miami, Florida on July 17, 2015.
Robert N. Scola, Jr.
United States District Judge
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