KEEFE v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION
OPINION filed. Signed by Judge Anne E. Thompson on 10/29/2015. (eaj)
OCT 3 0 2015
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
WILLIAM T. WALSH-I I
RONALD D. KEEFE,
Civ. No. 15-6807
GENERAL MOTORS LLC,
This matter is before the Court upon Defendant General Motors LLC' s Motion to
Dismiss. (ECF No. 7). Plaintiff Ronald D. Keefe opposes this Motion. (ECF No. 8). The Court
has decided the Motion based on the written submissions of the parties and without oral
argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78(b). For the reasons stated below,
Defendant's Motion is granted, but Plaintiffs Complaint is dismissed without prejudice.
Plaintiffs pertinent factual allegations are as follows. Plaintiff worked for Defendant for
a number of years as a member of the United Auto Workers Union ("UAW"). The UAW and
Defendant had a collective bargaining agreement. Under this agreement, workers were entitled
to Total and Permanent Disability ("TPD") Benefits if they became disabled within thirty days of
being laid off, and had been employed by Defendant for at least ten years. Plaintiff became
disabled in January 1989, and at some point was declared mentally incompetent and stopped
working for Defendant. Plaintiff subsequently received disability benefits from the Social
Security Administration. Plaintiff asserts that he met the criteria for TPD Benefits, but when he
applied for them, Defendant improperly denied his claim. Plaintiff does not specify a date for
when his claims were denied. However, he attached a letter to his Complaint from Defendant
dated September 25, 2000 where Defendant states that it had reviewed Plaintiffs file again and
confirmed that Plaintiff was not entitled to TPD Benefits.
On February 6, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Superior Court ofNew Jersey.
(ECF No. 1). Plaintiff made a breach of contract claim, requesting that the Court force
Defendant to honor the collective bargaining agreement and provide him with TPD Benefits and
interest dating back to January 1989. Defendant removed the case to this Court based on federal
question and diversity jurisdiction. (Id.).
When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a district court must conduct a three-part
analysis: "First, the court must 'take note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim."'
Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
675 (2009)). Second, the court must accept all of the plaintiffs well-pleaded factual allegations
as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, though the court
should disregard legally conclusory allegations. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F .3d 203,
210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Finally, the court must determine whether the "facts alleged in the
complaint are sufficient to show the plaintiff has a 'plausible claim for relief."' Id. at 211. It is
not enough for a pleading to offer "only 'labels and conclusions' or a 'formulaic recitation of the
elements of a cause of action"' to survive a motion to dismiss; the plaintiffs allegations, taken
together, must support a plausible claim under each cause of action. Id. at 210.
When a plaintiff proceeds pro se, courts must liberally construe the plaintiffs pleadings.
Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003). Courts must apply the relevant law to the
plaintiffs complaint, whether or not the plaintiff mentions the law by name. Id.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Defendant argues in its Notice of Removal that the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act ("ERISA") exclusively governs Plaintiffs claims. (ECF No. 1). lfERISA is the
governing statute, then this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 29 U .S.C. § 1132(e)(1 ).
Congress enacted ERISA "to promote the intere~ts of employees and their beneficiaries
in employee benefit plans." Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 90 (1983). A participant
in a benefits plan may sue under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(l)(B) to recover benefits due to him under
the terms of his plan. Plans covered by ERISA include pension and welfare plans that provide
participants with retirement, disability, and other benefits. 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1)-(2)(A).
Plaintiff applied for benefits under Defendant's pension plan. (Pl. 's Compl. 8, 13, ECF
No. 1). The pension plan outlines which retirement benefits participants receive under different
circumstances, including the "Total and Permanent Disability Retirement" benefits that Plaintiff
sought. (Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A, 6, ECF No. 7-2). The plan therefore fits under ERISA's
definition of a pension plan. 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A) (defining "pension plan" as a plan that
provides retirement income to employees). Because Plaintiff is seeking benefits from a plan
covered by ERISA, ERISA governs his claim, and this Court has jurisdiction.
Preemption Under ERISA
Congress intended ERISA to provide employers with a uniform body of benefits law.
Ingersoll-Rand Co. v. McC/endon, 498 U.S. 133, 142 (1990). When ERISA governs a
plaintiffs benefits claim, BRISA preempts state causes of action. Id.; DiFelice v. Aetna U.S.
Healthcare, 346 F.3d 442, 457 (3d Cir. 2003). Plaintiffs single breach of contract claim is
therefore preempted by BRISA. In order to pursue his case against Defendant, Plaintiff would
need to amend his Complaint to make an BRISA claim. 1 Estate ofJennings v. Delta Air Lines,
Inc., No. 15-962, 2015 WL 5089458, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 27, 2015) (denying Plaintiffs' request
that the Court convert their state law claims into ERISA claims). While Plaintiffs Complaint
must be dismissed due to BRISA preempting his sole claim, Plaintiff may have a valid BRISA
claim if he can show that the statute of limitations was tolled, as explained below.
ERISA's Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for plaintiffs seeking to recover benefits under BRISA is six
years in New Jersey. Cement Masons' Union Local No. 592 Pension Fund v. Almand Bros.
Concrete, No. 14-5413, 2015 WL 3604747, at *2 (D.N.J. June 8, 2015). The statute begins to
run when a claim for benefits is clearly denied, as long as the claimant knew or should have
known about the denial. Id.; Romero v. Allstate Corp., 404 F.3d 212, 221 (3d Cir. 2005).
Plaintiff does not allege a specific date when he was denied benefits, but he submitted a
letter from Defendant dated September 25, 2000, where Defendant informed a UAW
representative that Plaintiffs claim had been reviewed again and that Plaintiff would not be
awarded benefits. (Pl.'s Compl. 30, BCF No. 1). This suggests that Plaintiff was informed, at
the latest, that his claim had been denied fifteen years ago. Therefore, any attempt to file an
BRISA claim now would be futile, unless Plaintiff can show that the statute of limitations has
The Third Circuit encourages courts to grant plaintiffs leave to amend their complaints, whether
or not a plaintiff requests leave to amend. Phillips v. Cnty. ofAllegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 236 (3d
Plaintiff appears to argue that the statute was tolled due to "insanity." (Pl.' s Compl. 12,
ECF No. 1). A statute of limitations may be tolled in New Jersey ifthe plaintiff was legally
"insane" during the relevant period. Kyle v. Green Acres at Verona, Inc., 44 N .J. 100, 112-13
(1965). The bar for "insanity" is high: a plaintiff must have been unable to understand his legal
rights or institute legal action. Todish v. CIGNA Corp., 206 F.3d 303, 306 (3d Cir. 2000).
Simply not knowing how or when to sue is not enough. Id Being declared mentally disabled by
the Social Security Administration and awarded disability benefits is also insufficient by itself to
prove "insanity." Id.
Plaintiff states that he was declared incompetent, and therefore he was "insane," thus
tolling the statute oflimitations. (Pl.'s Compl. 12, ECF No. 1). To support his argument,
Plaintiff attached letters to his Complaint showing that he received disability benefits from
Social Security. (Id at 18-21 ). Plaintiff also attached the above case, Todish v. CIGNA Corp.
(Id at 24-27). However, Plaintiff does not allege that he failed to understand his legal rights at
an§ time. He also does not specify how long his period of "insanity" lasted, since filing the
Complaint demonstrates that he is not currently "insane" under the standard described in Todish.
Plaintiff can only move forward with an ERISA claim if he can plausibly allege a period of
"insanity'' from the time he should have known his benefits claim was d~nied, lasting at least
through February 2009 (six years prior to Plaintiff filing the present Complaint). Gee v. CBS,
Inc., 471 F. Supp. 600, 635 (E.D. Pa.), affd, 612 F.2d 572 (3d Cir. 1979) (stating that a plaintiff
must plead facts to justify the tolling of the statute of limitations when the plaintiffs pleadings
show that the statute of limitations would otherwise bar his claim).
For the forgoing reasons, Defendants' Motion will be granted, but Plaintiff is granted
leave to amend his Complaint. An order consistent with this opinion will follow.
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