BRYANT v. GENERAL ELECTRIC
ORDER granting in part and denying in part 48 Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. Only Plaintiff's breach of Plan obligation claim and breach of fiduciary duty claim remain. Ordered by US DISTRICT JUDGE LESLIE J ABRAMS on 02/14/2018. (mdm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
EARL A. BRYANT,
CASE NO.: 5:15-CV-61 (LJA)
Before the Court is Defendant General Electric Company’s Motion to Dismiss
Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint. Doc. 48. For the reasons articulated below, the Motion
is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.
Plaintiff Earl A. Bryant, a former vice president of human resources for Defendant,
initiated this action pro se, alleging various state-law claims against Defendant. Doc. 1 at 1. On
August 4, 2016, Defendant filed its first Motion to Dismiss, Doc. 10, which the Court granted
because Plaintiff’s claims were defensively preempted under ERISA. Doc. 37 at 4; Butero v.
Royal Maccabees Life Insur. Co., 174 F.3d 1207, 1212 (11th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff was given leave
to file an Amended Complaint stating claims actionable under the civil enforcement section
of ERISA, Section 502(a), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a). Doc. 37 at 4. On June 5, 2017, Plaintiff, with
the aid of counsel, filed a First Amended Complaint. Doc. 47. Defendant filed its Motion to
dismiss Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint on June 19, 2017. Doc. 48. Plaintiff filed a
Response on July 27, 2017, Doc. 50, and Defendant filed a Reply on August 3, 2017. Doc. 51.
Rule 12(b)(6) requires that the complaint plead enough facts to state a claim for relief
that is plausible—not just conceivable—on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,
570 (2007). Although a court must “take the factual allegations in the complaint as true and
construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs,” it is not required “to accept the
labels and legal conclusions in the complaint as true.” Edwards v. Prime, Inc., 602 F.3d 1276,
1291 (11th Cir. 2010); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“Threadbare recitals
of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not
suffice.”). At bottom, “the factual allegations in the complaint must possess enough heft to
set forth a plausible entitlement to relief.” Edwards, 602 F.3d at 1291 (punctuation omitted).
The Complaint, as amended, alleges two claims: (1) that Defendant breached its Plan
obligations when it changed Plans in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1132; and (2) that Defendant
breached its fiduciary duty to Plaintiff when it misled Plaintiff as to the details of the Plans in
violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1102. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that: (1) Defendant stated in
“employee/dependent medical plan, employee dependent life insurance plan, pension,
retirement, retiree reimbursement account, pharmacy assistance fund, and death benefits”—
would continue indefinitely; (2) that Defendant terminated or substantially modified these plans
without good cause or unanticipated reasons; (3) that Defendant used language in the SPD
and in the Retirement Plan Handbook that Defendant knew or should have known would
confuse or mislead participant as to when their coverage would terminate; (4) that these Plans
were “critical for against retirees, [including] for Plaintiff;” and (5) that Defendant “forced
retirees to liquidate their savings and security programs.” Doc. 47 at 1-5. The Complaint
further alleges that:
[Defendant] forced Plaintiff into a new Plan that cost him thousands of dollars
in retirement and pension funds, rendering Plaintiff almost penniless, and
causing him severe economic injury, foreclosure, and the loss of his family
home; changing medical benefits that now do not provide the coverage for
doctors, prescriptions, and healthcare as promised to continue ‘indefinitely’ and
deliberately violating said warranty of ‘sunset guarantees.’
Doc. 47 at 5-6. Plaintiff seeks equitable relief under 29 U.S.C. § 1109, an award of “his
retirement stock and pension at the actual cash value with interest prior to the forced, nonvoluntary conversion of benefits, . . . amounts to make Plaintiff whole . . ., [and] attorney fees
and costs pursuant to ERISA.” Doc. 47 at 7.
Plaintiff has sought relief under two subsections of ERISA. The law is clear, however,
that he cannot do so. “Under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B) (codified at 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B)), a
beneficiary in a plan governed by ERISA can sue in federal court ‘to recover benefits due to
him under the terms of his plan.’ Under a separate ERISA subsection, § 502(a)(3) (codified at
29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3)), a beneficiary can ‘obtain other appropriate equitable relief’ for breach
of fiduciary duty.” Vaughn v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 2017 WL 748725, at *2 (N.D. Ga. Feb. 27,
2017) (citations omitted). “These two distinct ERISA subsections are aimed at redressing
separate violations, and a claim properly brought under one cannot proceed alternatively under
the other.” Id.
As discussed in more detail below, viewing the allegations in the Complaint in the light
most favorable to Plaintiff, the Complaint alleges that Plaintiff was due lifetime benefits under
Plans administered by Defendant, that he was denied those benefits when Defendant changed
the Plans, and that the Plan documents misled Plaintiff as to the nature of the Plan benefits.
Plaintiff further alleges he suffered damages as a result of his reliance on the perpetual
existence of the benefits in the Plans. Thus, Plaintiff has stated claims under ERISA for breach
of Plan obligation and breach of fiduciary duty under § 1132(a)(1)(B).
As Plaintiff has stated a claim under § 1132(a)(1)(B), he cannot alternatively seek relief
under § 1132(a)(3). Accordingly, as to Plaintiff’s claim pursuant to § 1132(a)(3) that Defendant
breached a fiduciary duty arising out of the termination of the Plans that Plaintiff alleges should
have continued indefinitely, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted. See Jones v. Am. Gen. Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 370 F.3d 1065, 1074 (11th Cir. 2004) (holding
courts must analyze allegations supporting § 1132(a)(3) claims to determine if also sufficient
to state a claim under § 1132(a)(1)(B) regardless of relief sought and irrespective of allegations
supporting other claims).
Retiree health insurance plans are considered welfare benefit plans under ERISA. Owens
v. Storehouse, Inc., 984 F.2d 394, 398 (11th Cir. 1993). “ERISA does not prohibit a company
from terminating previously offered benefits that are neither vested nor accrued. Unlike
pension benefits, welfare benefit plans neither vest nor accrue.” Id. at 397-98 (citations
omitted). Furthermore, “[t]he SPD is the statutorily established means of informing
participants of the terms of the plan and its benefits. Accordingly, any retiree’s right to lifetime
medical benefits at a particular cost can only be found if it is established by contract under the
terms of the ERISA-governed benefit plan document.” Alday v. Container Corp. of Am., 906
F.2d 660, 665 (11th Cir. 1990). While “summary documents, important as they are, provide
communication with beneficiaries about the plan, [ ] their statements do not themselves
constitute the terms of the plan for purposes of § 502(a)(1)(B).” CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 563
U.S. 421, 438 (2011) (emphasis in original). “When a plan sponsor reserves the absolute right
to amend its health plan, [ERISA] does not prevent amendments made for the demonstrated
purpose of cost-saving alone.” Owens, 984 F.2d at 399.
Defendant alleges that it reserved the right to alter the Plans and attached several
documents to its Motion to Dismiss as evidence of this. See Docs. 48-2, 48-3, 48-4, 48-5, 486, 48-7, 48-8, 48-9. While the Court may consider documents without converting a motion to
dismiss to a motion for summary judgment,1 it will not do so at this time because, while
Plaintiff has not challenged the authenticity of these documents, it is not clear that these
documents are the only Plan documents relevant to the Complaint.
Plaintiff does not explicitly set forth a cause of action regarding the allegation that
Defendant “forced retirees to liquidate their savings and security programs” or that this
liquidation happened “outside of the normal statutory applicable period.” Doc. 47 at 4. Nor
does Plaintiff cite any specific statutory basis for such a claim. Regardless, ERISA claims for
breach of fiduciary duty are subject to a six-year statute of limitations. 29 U.S.C. § 1113(1).
While Plaintiff may allege a continuing loss as a result of this forced transfer, he does not allege
a continuing violation of a fiduciary duty—such as a duty to manage Plaintiff’s investments.
Therefore, the continuing violation rule announced in Tibble v. Edison Int’l is inapplicable here.
135 S. Ct. 1823, 1828 (2015) (holding claim is timely if alleged breach of continuing duty
“[A] court may consider a document attached to a motion to dismiss without converting the motion
into one for summary judgment if the attached document is (1) central to the plaintiff’s claim and (2)
undisputed. In this context, ‘undisputed’ means that the authenticity of the document is not challenged.” Day
v. Taylor, 400 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2005).
occurred within six years of filing of lawsuit). Thus, Plaintiff has failed to state a claim for
breach of fiduciary duty based on the alleged forced liquidation.
Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, Doc. 48, is GRANTED in part and DENIED in
part. Only Plaintiff’s breach of Plan obligation claim and breach of fiduciary duty claim
SO ORDERED, this 14th day of February, 2018.
/s/ Leslie J. Abrams
LESLIE J. ABRAMS, JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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