The opinion of the court was delivered by: SAUNDRA BROWN ARMSTRONG
This is an action brought under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., by plaintiff Larry Rucker against his former employer, defendants Pacific FM, Inc. ("Pacific FM"), and its owner and president, James Gabbert. Pacific FM owns and operates a local television station commonly known as "KOFY-TV20." Plaintiff, who is now disabled with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome ("AIDS"), contends that defendants violated their fiduciary duty under ERISA by secretly terminating the company's long-term disability benefits policy on August 1, 1990.
The parties are now before the Court on defendants' motion for summary judgment. After having read and considered the papers submitted, and being fully informed, the Court finds that defendants' motion should be denied.
At the time of his hiring in 1982, plaintiff was enrolled in an employee benefit plan provided by Pacific FM. This plan included a long-term disability benefits ("LTD") policy issued through the Unionmutual Stock Life Insurance Company ("USLIC"). The USLIC LTD policy constitutes a "plan" governed by ERISA.
Defendants state that in an attempt to cut their operating costs, they decided to "revamp" their employee benefit plan. This change in employee benefits included switching health insurance carriers and terminating the existing LTD policy. Pacific FM contends that it notified its employees of these changes in benefits through various memorandums and other media. None of these "disclosures," however, explicitly mentioned or discussed the termination of the LTD benefits.
In late April or early May 1991, plaintiff approached Michelle Mattea, Pacific FM's accounting manager, concerning benefits afforded under the company's LTD policy. Mattea informed plaintiff that she believed that the policy had been cancelled. Subsequently, on June 3, 1991, plaintiff wrote to Gabbert concerning what benefits would be available should he terminate his employment; Gabbert responded that LTD benefits were no longer provided to Pacific FM's employees.
Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on October 28, 1991, alleging that defendants wrongfully concealed the termination of the LTD policy. The complaint contained three claims: (1) violation of ERISA; (2) breach of contract, and (3) fraud. By Order dated January 7, 1992, this Court dismissed the second and third claims on the ground that they are preempted by ERISA.
Defendants now move for summary judgment on numerous grounds which are summarized as follows: (1) defendant had no fiduciary duty to plaintiff, and therefore, could terminate the LTD benefits without consideration of its employees' welfare; (2) defendants' termination of the LTD plan comported with the procedural requirements of ERISA; (3) assuming any procedural violations occurred, plaintiff is still not entitled to any substantive relief; and (4) plaintiff is estopped from bringing this lawsuit because he did not exhaust his administrative remedies. None of these arguments warrant judgment, as a matter of law, in favor of defendants.
A. Did Defendants Owe Plaintiff a ...