United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT
UNDER RULE 52 AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT
UNDER RULE 52 FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW [Re:
ECF 31, 32]
LABSON FREEMAN United States District Judge
Melissa Vaccaro (“Vaccaro”) filed this
ERISA action against Defendant Liberty Life
Assurance Company of Boston (“Liberty”) following
Liberty's denial of her claim for long term disability
benefits (“LTD benefits”) under a group insurance
policy that Liberty issued to Vaccaro's former employer,
NetApp, Inc. (“NetApp”). The policy is one
component of NetApp's Group Health Plan, a welfare
benefit plan offered by NetApp to provide its employees with
medical, dental, vision, life, and disability benefits.
Liberty policy classifies employees as either “Class
1” or “Class 2.” The primary difference
between the two classes is the showing required to establish
disability. Class 1 employees need show only an inability to
perform their “own occupation” in order to be
considered disabled through the policy coverage period. In
contrast, Class 2 employees must show an inability to perform
their “own occupation” for the first 24 months of
coverage and thereafter must show an inability to perform
“any occupation” for the remainder of the
coverage period. Liberty classified Vaccaro as a Class 2
employee and denied her claim for benefits. Vaccaro contends
that she is a Class 1 employee, and she filed this action to
obtain a determination that she is entitled to past-due and
future LTD benefits under the own occupation standard
applicable to Class 1 employees. After the litigation
commenced, Liberty reversed its prior claim denial and paid
all past-due benefits. However, Liberty affirmed its
classification of Vaccaro as a Class 2 employee.
Court conducted a bench trial on the parties'
cross-motions for judgment under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 52. In light of Liberty's disability
determination and payment of past-due benefits, the only
substantive issue remaining for disposition is whether
Vaccaro is a Class 1 employee or a Class 2 employee. Having
considered the briefing, the evidence, and the oral argument
presented at the bench trial, the Court concludes that she is
a Class 1 employee. The Court therefore GRANTS Vaccaro's
Rule 52 motion and DENIES Liberty's Rule 52 motion.
Rule of Civil Procedure 52 provides that “[i]n an
action tried on the facts without a jury . . . the court must
find the facts specially and state its conclusions of law
separately.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(1). “In a Rule 52
motion, as opposed to a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment,
the court does not determine whether there is an issue of
material fact, but actually decides whether the plaintiff is
[entitled to benefits] under the policy.” Prado v.
Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine Group Disability Income
Policy, 800 F.Supp.2d 1077, 1094 (N.D. Cal. 2011)
(citing Kearney v. Standard Ins. Co., 175 F.3d 1084,
1095 (9th Cir. 1999)). In making that determination, the
court must “evaluate the persuasiveness of conflicting
testimony and decide which is more likely true” in
order to make findings of fact that will be subject to review
under a clearly erroneous standard if appealed.
Kearney, 175 F.3d at 1095.
FINDINGS OF FACT
Vaccaro was employed by NetApp in its human resources
department. Madrigal Decl. ¶ 10, ECF 31-5.
“Job Title, ” as stated in the “NetApp Job
Description, ” was “HR Program Mgr 5.”
NetApp Job Description, Exh. 6 to Madrigal Decl., ECF 31-11.
“Job Code” per the NetApp Job Description was
“Job Level” per the NetApp Job Description was
“Individual Contributor 5.” Id.
Instead of using the official job title stated in the NetApp
Job Description, Vaccaro and/or her manager chose to use the
title “Global Leadership and Talent Development Program
Manager” for Vaccaro's position. Madrigal Opp.
Decl. ¶ 14, ECF 33-12.
2012, Vaccaro began having symptoms of pain and fatigue.
Vaccaro Decl. ¶ 8, Exh. 1 to Keenley Decl., ECF 32-1.
Despite medical care, her symptoms worsened throughout 2013
and 2014. Id. ¶ 9.
tried working from home three days a week, but she found it
increasingly difficult to perform her job even with that
accommodation. Id. ¶ 10.
cognitive abilities began to deteriorate, particularly in the
areas of memory and comprehension. Id. ¶ 6.
April 2015, her abilities deteriorated to such an extent that
she was unable to continue performing her job. Id.
¶¶ 2, 6.
Vaccaro's last day of work was April 29, 2015. Claim
Denial at 1, Exh. 8 to Keenley Decl., ECF 32-1.
NetApp Group Health Plan and Liberty Policy
Vaccaro was a participant in NetApp's Group Health Plan.
The Group Health Plan initially was established effective
June 1, 1996. Madrigal Decl. ¶ 4, ECF 31-5.
Group Health Plan was amended and restated effective January
1, 2015 (“2015 Group Health Plan”). See
2015 Group Health Plan, Exh. 10 to Keeney Decl., ECF 32-1.
Group Health Plan again was amended and restated effective
January 1, 2016 (“2016 Group Health Plan”).
See 2016 Group Health Plan, Exh. 1 to Madrigal
Decl., ECF 31-6.
relevant provisions of the 2015 Group Health Plan and the
2016 Group Health Plan do not differ materially. Accordingly,
this Order refers to “the Group Health Plan” and
provides citations to both the 2015 Group Health Plan and the
2016 Group Health Plan.
first page of the Group Health Plan states that NetApp, the
Plan Sponsor and the Plan Administrator, “at any time
and from time to time may amend, change or terminate the Plan
without the consent of any Covered Person or any other
persons entitled to receive payment of benefits under the
Plan.” 2015 Group Health Plan at i, Exh. 10 to Keeney
Decl., ECF 32-1; 2016 Group Health Plan at i, Exh. 1 to
Madrigal Decl., ECF 31-6.
Group Health Plan is defined to incorporate “Component
Plans, ” meaning medical, dental, and other benefit
plans adopted by NetApp. 2015 Group Health Plan at 1, Exh. 10
to Keeney Decl., ECF 32-1; 2016 Group Health Plan at 2, Exh.
1 to Madrigal Decl., ECF 31-6.
Group Health Plan grants NetApp, as the Plan Administrator,
authority to “interpret the terms and provisions of the
Plan” and to “determine eligibility under the
Plan.” 2015 Group Health Plan at 24, Exh. 10 to Keeney
Decl., ECF 32-1; 2016 Group Health Plan at 24, Exh. 1 to
Madrigal Decl., ECF 31-6.
of the Component Plans which is incorporated into the Group
Health Plan is an insurance policy for LTD benefits issued by
Liberty in 2012 and reissued effective January 1, 2015. 2015
Group Health Plan at A-1, Exh. 10 to Keeney Decl., ECF 32-1;
2016 Group Health Plan at A-2, Exh. 1 to Madrigal Decl., ECF
31-6; Madrigal Decl. ¶ 5, ECF 31-5.
Liberty policy reissued in 2015 (“2015 Policy”)
provides LTD benefits for two classes of employees, Class 1
employees and Class 2 employees. 2015 Policy at SCH-1, Exh. 2
to Madrigal Decl., ECF 31-7.
2015 Policy defines Class 1 employees as follows:
Class 1: CEO, President, Vice President, Corporate Officers,
Directors, Managers, and Engineers
2015 Policy at SCH-1, Exh. 2 to Madrigal Decl., ECF 31-7.
2015 Policy defines Class 2 employees as follows:
Class 2: All other Employees
2015 Policy at SCH-1, Exh. 2 to Madrigal Decl., ...