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Patrick v. Voluntary Plan Administrators

October 31, 2007

LYN PATRICK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
VOLUNTARY PLAN ADMINISTRATORS, INC.'S HEWLETT-PACKARD COMPANY, EMPLOYEE BENEFITS ORGANIZATION INCOME PLAN, ETC.; ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jan M. Adler U.S. Magistrate Judge

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATION FOR A CONTINUANCE PURSUANT TO PROTECTION FED.R.CIV.P. 56(f)

Introduction

On July 26, 2006, Plaintiff filed a Complaint to Recover Benefits, Costs and Attorneys' Fees Under [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA")]; and for Recovery of Statutory Penalties Under ERISA. [Doc. No. 1] The parties filed a Consent to Exercise of Jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge on May 4, 2007. [Doc. No. 19] On June 29, 2007, Defendant Voluntary Plan Administrators, Inc. filed a Motion for Summary Judgment ("the Motion"). [Doc. No. 29] Plaintiff filed an Opposition to the Motion ("Oppo.") on August 14, 2007, and Defendants filed a Reply on August 23, 2007. [Doc. Nos. 40-45] On August 27, 2007, Judge Adler found the Motion to be suitable for determination on the papers submitted and without oral argument pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7.1.d.1. and vacated the August 30, 2007 hearing date. [Doc. No. 47]

Factual Background

Plaintiff Lyn Patrick was a 20-year employee of Defendant Hewlett-Packard Company ("HP"). (Declaration of Lyn Patrick filed in support of Oppo. [Doc. No. 44], "Patrick Decl.," ¶ 2.) In or about 2000, Plaintiff required right shoulder impingement release therapy and was off work from January to March 2000. She returned to work in April 2000, but her condition degenerated, and by 2002 she could no longer function at work. (Id.) Plaintiff's doctors then certified her as totally disabled, and she was paid long term disability ("LTD") benefits under the Hewlett-Packard Company Disability Plan ("the Plan")*fn1 for a period of one year. (Id. at ¶ 3.) She also received workers' compensation benefits. (Id. at ¶ 4.)

On August 11, 2003, Defendant Voluntary Plan Administrators, Inc. ("VPA"), acting on behalf of HP, terminated Plaintiff's LTD benefits. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Plaintiff participated in vocational rehabilitation training without success, and VPA and HP did not reinstate her LTD benefits. (Id. at ¶¶ 9-10.) Plaintiff filed a "Request for Appeal" on February 4, 2004, and VPA responded in a letter dated February 12, 2004 that Plaintiff had not "presented any evidence or documentation to substantiate [her] disability beyond August 24, 2003." (Id. at ¶¶ 11-12.) In a letter dated July 9, 2004, VPA upheld the original denial of Plaintiff's LTD benefits claim. (Id. at ¶ 13.)

Plaintiff subsequently retained counsel and, on November 24, 2004, counsel requested that VPA and HP reopen Plaintiff's claim. VPA and HP did not respond to counsel's letter. (Patrick Decl. at ¶¶ 20-21.) Counsel then sent to VPA and HP a letter dated February 9, 2006 entitled "Perfection of Internal Appeal of Denial of Long-Term Disability Benefits," which included supplemental medical and vocational reports and other exhibits. VPA and HP did not respond to counsel's letter. (Id. at ¶¶ 22-27.) Plaintiff filed this action on July 26, 2006.

Defendant Voluntary Plan Administrators, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment The sole issue presented by the Motion is whether the Court should dismiss Defendant VPA as an improper party. Defendant VPA contends, generally, that because it is not the Plan or "plan administrator" (the Plan designates VPA as the "claims administrator"), Plaintiff cannot assert an ERISA claim for benefits against it. Plaintiff opposes the Motion and contends, generally, that because VPA acted as a de facto plan administrator, VPA is a proper defendant. Plaintiff argues that because the Plan document and the Administrative Services Agreement ("ASA") are internally inconsistent regarding the issue of whether HP delegated its plan administrator function to VPA, discovery is needed to shed light on VPA's role as de facto plan administrator.

Summary judgment is proper when the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" only if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact finder to find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). "In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court may not weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations, and is required to draw all inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party." Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 735 (9th Cir. 1997).

The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of identifying those portions of the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits which demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Once the moving party meets this initial burden, the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and by its own evidence "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

Rule 56(f) provides that the court may continue a motion for summary judgment if the opposing party "cannot for reasons stated present by affidavit facts essential to justify the party's opposition." However, "Rule 56(f) is not a shield that can be raised to block a motion for summary judgment without even the slightest showing by the opposing party that his opposition is meritorious." Willmar Poultry Co. v. Morton-Norwich Products, , 520 F.2d 289, 297 (8th Cir. 1975). When "a party fails to carry his burden under Rule 56(f), postponement of a ruling on a motion for summary judgment is unjustified." Id.; see also Christian v. Mattel, Inc., 286 F.3d 1118, 1129 n.9 (9th Cir. 2002). Furthermore, the discovery sought by means of a Rule 56(f) application must be relevant to the issue presented by the motion for summary judgment. See Christian, supra, 286 F.3d at 1129 n.9 (upholding denial of Rule 56(f) application when requested discovery was "immaterial" and "could not change the undisputed" facts.)

Plaintiff argues that she should be allowed to conduct discovery to show that VPA is a de facto plan administrator under the Plan before the Court decides whether VPA is a proper defendant to the action. (Oppo. at 7-13.) As the following discussion illustrates, the issue of whether VPA is a proper defendant to the action is determinable without the need for discovery by Plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that VPA is not a proper party to the action and should be dismissed, and further finds that a continuance of the Motion is neither appropriate nor necessary under Rule 56(f).

A. VPA is the "Claims Administrator" under the Plan

Under Ninth Circuit law, "ERISA authorizes actions to recover benefits against the Plan as an entity, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(d)(1), and against the Plan's administrator. See 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B)." Ford v. MCI Communications Health & Welfare, 399 F.3d 1076, 1081 (9th Cir. 2005); see also Everhart v. Allmerica Financial Life Ins. Co., 275 F.3d 751, 754 ...


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