Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Tri-Crossing Installation Services, Inc. et al
OPINION AND ORDER denying 17 Motion to Dismiss; granting 21 Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint; and denying 26 Motion for Leave to File Sur-reply Brief. Signed by District Judge John Corbett O'Meara. (WBar)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
TRUSTEES OF THE DETROIT
CARPENTERS FRINGE BENEFITS FUNDS,
Case No. 16-12344
Hon. John Corbett O’Meara
SERVICES, INC., a MI corporation,
and SYNERGY INSTALLATION
SOLUTIONS, LLC, a South Carolina
limited liability company, jointly
OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS’
MOTION TO DISMISS AND GRANTING PLAINTIFFS’
MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT
Before the court are Defendants’ motion to dismiss and Plaintiffs’ motion to
file an amended complaint. For the reasons explained below, Defendants’ motion
is denied and Plaintiffs’ motion is granted.
Plaintiffs are Trustees of the Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds, who
bring this action to recover unpaid fringe benefit contributions pursuant to ERISA.
Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Tri-Crossing Installation Services, Inc. entered into
a collective bargaining agreement with the Michigan Regional Council of
Carpenters. Plaintiffs contend that pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement,
Tri-Crossing is obligated to contribute to the fringe benefit funds represented by
the plaintiff trustees. Plaintiffs also allege that Defendant Synergy Installation
Solutions, LLC, is the alter ego of Tri-Crossing and is likewise obligated to make
fringe benefit contributions under the collective bargaining agreement.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ initial complaint, which did
not include a copy of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, arguing that
there was no evidence that Tri-Crossing was obligated to make fringe benefit
contributions. Plaintiffs seek leave to amend their complaint to include a copy of
the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) signed by Tri-Crossing on January 7,
2004. Defendants oppose Plaintiffs’ amendment on futility grounds, contending
that the CBA is invalid and/or any determination of its validity is within the
primary jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2), the court should
“freely” permit a plaintiff to amend his complaint “when justice so requires.” The
court may deny leave when amendment would be futile – that is, when the
amendment could not withstand a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
See Rose v. Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co., 203 F.3d 417, 420-21 (6th Cir. 2000).
To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must allege facts that, if accepted as
true, are sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and to
“state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937,
1949-50 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual
content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is
liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 1949. See also Hensley Manuf. v.
Propride, Inc., 579 F.3d 603, 609 (6th Cir. 2009).
Defendants contend that the CBA is invalid because Plaintiffs are
improperly attempting to enforce a construction industry CBA on a nonconstruction workforce and because the CBA does not have the support of the
majority of employees. Defendants argue that these issues are “primarily
representational” and therefore fall within the jurisdiction of the National Labor
Relations Board, not this court.
Defendants’ arguments are without merit. As a threshold matter, the court’s
jurisdiction is clear. See, e.g., Benson v. Brower’s Moving & Storage, Inc., 907
F.2d 310, 312-13 (2d Cir. 1990) (“We begin our analysis by noting that ERISA
sections 502 and 515 clearly give a district court subject matter jurisdiction to hear
an action brought by benefit plan trustees to enforce an employer’s promise to
Moreover, Defendants’ objections are not recognized defenses to an action
by ERISA funds to collect delinquent contributions. See Operating Engineers
Local 324 Health Care Plan v. G & W Const. Co., 783 F.3d 1045, 1052-1053 (6th
Cir. 2015). Section 515 of ERISA “protects and streamlines the procedure for
collecting delinquent contributions owed to ERISA plans by limiting ‘unrelated’
and ‘extraneous’ defenses.” Id. at 1051. ERISA funds are “accorded a special
status and are entitled to enforce the written contracts, without regard to the
understandings or common-law contract defenses of the original parties, similar to
a holder in due course in commercial law.” Id. at 1053 (citation omitted). The
passage of § 515 arose from Congress’s concern that “simple collection actions
brought by plan trustees [had] been converted into lengthy, costly and complex
litigation concerning claims and defenses unrelated to the employer’s promise and
the plans’ entitlement to the contributions, and steps [were required] to simplify
delinquency collection.” Id. at 1051-52 (quoting Kaiser Steel Corp. v. Mullins, 455
U.S. 72, 87 (1982)).
In order to simplify delinquency collection, “[c]ourts generally permit a few
defenses, including illegality of the contributions, the contract requiring the
contributions was void at its inception [because of fraud in the execution], or the
union was decertified.” G & W Const., 783 F.3d at 1052. In addition, the Sixth
Circuit “has permitted limited examination of a contract termination defense, at
least if the parties’ conduct shows, based on a cursory review, that the contract has
been terminated.” Id.
Defendants argue that the CBA was invalid (or void) because it was a
construction industry pre-hire agreement entered into without the support of the
majority of the employees and Defendants are not in the construction industry.
This is precisely the type of defense that is precluded by § 515 of ERISA:
If the employer simply points to a defect in formation –
such as fraud in the inducement, oral promises to
disregard the text, or the lack of majority support for the
union and the consequent ineffectiveness of the pact
under labor law – it must still keep its promise to the
Anything less may well saddle the plans with unfunded
Central States, Southeast & Southwest Areas Pension Fund v. Gerber Truck Serv.,
Inc., 870 F.2d 1148, 1153 (7th Cir. 1989) (emphasis added). See also Benson v.
Brower’s Moving & Storage, Inc., 907 F.2d 310, 313-16 (2d Cir. 1990) (“Thus,
once an employer knowingly signs an agreement that requires him to contribute to
an employee benefit plan, he may not escape his obligation by raising defenses that
call into question the union’s ability to enforce the contract as a whole.”);
MacKillop v. Lowe’s Market, Inc., 58 F.3d 1441, 1444-45 (9th Cir. 1995) (lack of
majority status of union “not a valid defense to the employer’s obligation to an
ERISA plan”); Cement Masons’ Pension Fund, Local 502 v. Dukane Precast, Inc.,
822 F. Supp. 1316, 1321 (N.D. Ill. 1993) (invalidity of pre-hire construction
industry agreement not a defense to claim for fringe benefit contributions under
Defendants point to another alleged defect in the CBA – that the “evergreen
clause” was ineffective. The CBA signed by Tri-Crossing had a cover sheet that
was dated 2000-2003. These pre-printed dates were altered by the parties (and
initialed) to read “2003-2006.” See Pls.’ Ex. A. Tri-Crossing’s representative,
Brian Jacobs, signed the CBA on January 7, 2004. The CBA provides for a term
This Agreement shall remain in full force and effect until
June 1, 2003 and thereafter shall be automatically
renewed from year to year unless either party hereto shall
notify the other party, in writing. . . .
Id. at 59.
Defendants argue that the agreement’s term (in “effect until June 1, 2003")
had already “expired” at the time Tri-Crossing signed it. By its terms, however,
the agreement automatically renewed until one of the parties provided notice in
writing, which Tri-Crossing has not done. Further, this type of alleged defect in
contract formation is a defense that is precluded by the case law cited above. To
the extent Defendants contend that the CBA was terminated, they have not
provided evidence that Tri-Crossing “unequivocally communicated its intent to
withdraw from the CBA.” Orrand v. Scassa Asphalt, Inc., 794 F.3d 556, 564-65
(6th Cir. 2015). Absent a clear and explicit notice to terminate, the CBA remained
in effect as a result of its evergreen clause. See id. (in ERISA case, CBA
termination defense permits only a “limited inquiry” to confirm that the employer
“unequivocally communicated its intent to withdraw”).
Defendants have not demonstrated that Plaintiffs’ claims set forth in
proposed amended complaint are futile. Accordingly, the court will grant Plaintiffs
leave to amend their complaint and deny Defendants’ motion to dismiss.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an
amended complaint is GRANTED. Plaintiffs shall file an amended complaint
within ten (10) days of the date of this order.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendants’ motion to dismiss and
Defendants’ motion to file a sur-reply are DENIED.
s/John Corbett O’Meara
United States District Judge
Date: May 8, 2017
I hereby certify that a copy of the foregoing document was served upon
counsel of record on this date, May 8, 2017, using the ECF system.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?