The opinion of the court was delivered by: Audrey B. Collins Chief United States District Judge
FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
Pending before the Court is a bench trial on the papers submitted by Plaintiff Mark Legassie ("Plaintiff") and Defendant Raytheon Company Employee Benefits Administration Committee ("Defendant"). The parties' filings include Plaintiff's Opening Trial Brief, Memorandum of Contentions of Fact and Law, and the Declaration of Mark Legassie; Defendant's Trial Brief, and the Declaration of Ched Miller and Exhibits A, B, C, and D thereto; Plaintiff's Responding Brief; and Defendant's Responding Brief, Objections, and the Supplemental Declaration of Ched Miller. The Court found the matter appropriate for determination without a hearing and vacated the hearing date.
I. PRELIMINARY DISCUSSION
Plaintiff Mark Legassie is employed by the Raytheon Company ("Raytheon"). He is a participant in the Raytheon Company Pension Plan for Salaried Employees ("Plan"). Defendant is the Administrator of the Plan. In this action, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant failed to disclose certain Plan documents and/or notices to him as required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. Section 1001 et seq. ("ERISA"), and he seeks statutory penalties and equitable relief for these violations.
Defendant's Opening Brief focuses solely on a purported claim for denial of benefits and does not address Plaintiff's statutory claims. Plaintiff's Opening Brief, by contrast, abandons any claim for denial of benefits and instead focuses solely on his statutory claims. Insofar as Plaintiff seeks reinstatement into the Plan and a determination of future benefits, he does so as an equitable remedy for these statutory violations. Accordingly, the Court finds it unnecessary to review Defendant's decision denying benefits because Plaintiff has asserted only statutory disclosure violations.
Notwithstanding Plaintiff's apparent abandonment of any denial-of-benefits claim, both parties characterize this matter as an administrative review of Defendant's conduct based on the administrative record, and state that the applicable standard of review is abuse of discretion. However, as noted, this not a denial-of-benefits case wherein Defendant made a discretionary decision concerning whether a participant is entitled to benefits under the Plan. See Kearney v. Standard Ins. Co., 175 F.3d 1084, 1088 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (establishing standards of administrative review for denial of benefits claims). Rather, Plaintiff asserts claims that Defendant failed to fulfill statutory disclosure requirements. A plan administrator has no discretion to disobey statutory requirements.
In its own research to determine the applicable procedural framework, the Court observed that statutory claims are typically piggybacked onto claims for benefits, and that courts tend to dispose of such tag-along claims without addressing their procedural differences from benefits claims. Among the cases that deal solely with statutory violations, courts have dealt with them as ordinary de novo claims for statutory violations, rather than as claims seeking administrative review. See, e.g., Boone v. Leavenworth Anesthesia, Inc., 20 F.3d 1108 (10th Cir. 1994) (affirming trial court's evidently de novo factual findings and discretionary imposition of penalties for statutory violations); Hemphill v. Estate of Ryskamp, 619 F. Supp. 2d 954 (E.D. Cal. 2008) (nondisclosure claims adjudicated in a motion for summary judgment, evidently de novo); Porcellini v. Strassheim Printing Co., Inc., 578 F. Supp. 605 (D.C. Pa. 1983) (nondisclosure claims adjudicated in bench trial, evidently de novo).
In the Court's view, de novo review makes most sense. First, ERISA jurisprudence entails administrative review for those claims that challenge actual administrative decisions. Here, there is simply no evidence in the record reflecting that Defendant made any decision at all concerning disclosures, let alone whether any such decision was an "abuse of discretion." Indeed, Plaintiff makes no allegations as to any disclosure-related decision Defendant might have made. Second, ERISA benefits cases are framed as administrative reviews in part because ERISA requires plans to provide a process by which benefits denials can be reviewed. See, e.g., Smith v. Sydnor, 184 F.3d 356, 361 (4th Cir. 1999) ("an ERISA claimant generally is required to exhaust the remedies provided by the employee benefit plan in which he participates as a prerequisite to an ERISA action for denial of benefits under 29 U.S.C. § 1132. Requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies for such claims gives force to ERISA's explicit requirement that benefit plans covered by ERISA provide internal dispute resolution procedures for participants whose claims for benefits have been denied.") (citations omitted). The parties have pointed to no analogous internal appeal process of an administrator's failure to make statutory disclosures. Not surprisingly, Plaintiff has never submitted his lack of notice claims to Defendant, and Defendant therefore never made a formal decision as to them. This demonstrates that administrative review jurisprudence is not applicable in a case for statutory violations alone.
In this case, however, the practical effect of this distinction --
between administrative review and ordinary de novo determination of a
statutory claim -- may simply be on the evidence the Court can
consider, because, if this is not an administrative review, the Court
can consider evidence outside of the administrative record.*fn1
The distinction will have little impact on the substantive
outcome of this case because, even if the administrator made a
decision to withhold disclosures in violation of statutory
requirements, a decision to violate a statute is not a permissible
exercise of discretion. As such, the statutory violations alleged
herein would necessarily constitute abuses of discretion were that
standard to apply.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will not treat this case as an administrative review. Instead, it will determine de novo whether Defendant violated the statutory disclosure requirements.*fn2
1. Plaintiff Mark Legassie ("Legassie") began working for Raytheon Company ("Raytheon") in November 1987 and remains employed by Raytheon to the present. (AR 79, 103.)*fn4
2. After fulfilling the one-year service requirement, Plaintiff became a participant in the Raytheon Company Pension Plan for Salaried Employees ("Plan"). (Id.)
3. Defendant Raytheon Company Employee Benefits Administration Committee ("Defendant") is the Administrator of the Plan. (Def's Opening Brief 1:23-28.)
4. The Plan is governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. Section 1001 et seq.
5. Legassie continued to work for Raytheon and accrue pension credit in the Plan until April 1999, when he accepted an offer of full-time employment from the Raytheon business unit, Raytheon STX ("Raytheon STX"). (AR 96.)
6. The Raytheon STX position into which Plaintiff transferred was not eligible for participation in the Plan. (AR 96.)
7. In 2008, Plaintiff requested pension credit for the time period since his transfer in 1999. (AR 96.)
8. Defendant denied Plaintiff's request and informed him that he stopped accruing pension benefits when he transferred into the ...