Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, D.C. No. CV-04-01716-ROS, Roslyn O. Silver, District Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Clifton, Circuit Judge
Argued and Submitted October 23, 2008 -- San Francisco, California
Before: Melvin Brunetti, Glenn L. Archer*fn1 and Richard R. Clifton, Circuit Judges.
This case concerns, among other issues, the standard of review to be applied by courts in reviewing a decision by the administrator of a pension plan governed by ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 829, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. As is commonly the case, the documents for the plan involved in this case gave the plan administrator discretionary authority to interpret the terms of the plan, which ordinarily means that a decision by the plan administrator is subject to review by a court for abuse of discretion, under Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 109 S.Ct. 948 (1989), and Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 2343 (2008) ("MetLife"). The plan in question here is a "top hat" plan, an unfunded plan that is limited to key executives of the sponsoring company. That fact has led some courts to conclude that a plan administrator's decisions should be subject to de novo review. In the circumstances of this case, though, notably the fact that there was no financial conflict of interest that influenced the administrator to favor one result over another, we conclude that our review should be for abuse of discretion.
Defendant U.S. Bancorp Amended and Restated Supplemental Benefits Plan appeals the district court's entry of summary judgment directing the Plan to treat plaintiff Franciene Sznewajs as a designated surviving spouse beneficiary. Franc-iene is the ex-wife of counter-defendant Robert Sznewajs,*fn2 a former executive employee of U.S. Bancorp covered by the Plan. The Plan had concluded that Robert's second wife, Virginia, should be treated as his survivor beneficiary, a determination held improper by the district court. Applying the abuse of discretion standard of review, we conclude that the plan administrator's interpretation was permissible and should be affirmed. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the district court judgment with instructions for the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of the Plan.
As an employee covered by U.S. Bancorp's plan for top executives, Robert had the option to select a single life annuity or a joint and survivor annuity. Under a single life annuity, payments would be made monthly to him as long as he lived but no payments would be made to anyone after his death. Under a joint and survivor annuity, the amount of the monthly payments would be smaller, but if his wife lived longer than he did, payments to her would continue after his death. The total present value of the benefits was intended to be the same either way. The specific amount of the monthly payments would be determined by an actuarial calculation that took into account his selection and also the remaining life expectancy of Robert - and that of his wife, if he chose a survivor annuity - based on their ages at the time that payments started. Robert opted for a joint and survivor annuity. His election, on a form signed by him, did not identify the name of his spouse.
Robert resigned from Bancorp in December 1999 and took a position with another bank. At that time Robert was 53 years old. Although he was no longer employed by the company, Robert did not start to receive benefits then, because the plan provides that payments do not start until after the beneficiary both ceases to be an employee of the company and turns 55.
At the time he left Bancorp, Robert was married to Fran-ciene, although they had been separated for over a year. Robert and Franciene were divorced in February 2001, eight months before Robert's 55th birthday. The divorce followed a dissolution proceeding in Minnesota state court dividing the couple's assets. Pursuant to the divorce decree, Franciene is entitled to fifty percent of any annuity payments Robert receives under the Plan.
In August of that same year, Robert married Virginia Sznewajs. In October, he turned 55, and in November, he started receiving monthly annuity benefits, the value of which the Plan calculated ...