Noorali Savani v. URS Professional Solutions, LLC, No. 13-2512 (4th Cir. 2014)

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UNPUBLISHED UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT No. 13-2512 NOORALI SAM SAVANI, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated; ROBERT P. TAYLOR, JR., individually and on behalf of others similarly situated, Plaintiffs - Appellees, v. URS PROFESSIONAL SOLUTIONS, LLC, f/k/a Westinghouse Safety Management Solutions, LLC, f/k/a Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC; URS PROFESSIONAL SOLUTIONS PENSION PLAN, f/k/a Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC Pension Plan, f/k/a WSMS Pension Plan; URS ENERGY & CONSTRUCTION, INC., f/k/a Washington Group International, Inc.; ROGER ALLEN, as Trustee and Member of the Benefits now Administrative Committee of URS Professional Solutions Pension Plan; JULIE TSCHIDA BROWN, as Trustee and Member of the Benefits now Administrative Committee of URS Professional Solutions Pension Plan; DAVE HOLLAN, as Trustee and Member of the Benefits now Administrative Committee of URS Professional Solutions Pension Plan; DELOYD CAZIER, as Trustee and Member of the Benefits now Administrative Committee of URS Professional Solutions Pension Plan, Defendants – Appellants, and WASHINGTON SAVANNAH RIVER COMPANY, LLC, f/k/a Westinghouse Savannah River Company, LLC; WESTINGHOUSE SAFETY MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS, LLC PENSION PLAN; PAUL HARPER, as Trustee and Member of the Benefits now Administrative Committee of URS Professional Solutions Pension Plan; LEO SAIN, as Trustee of Westinghouse Safety Management Solutions, LLC Pension Plan; PRES RAHE, as Trustee of Westinghouse Safety Management Solutions, LLC Pension Plan; WASHINGTON SAVANNAH RIVER COMPANY'S PENSION PLAN; RALPH DISIBIO, as director of Washington Safety Management Solution, LLC; PAUL GREFENSTETTE, as Director of Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC; ROBERT PEDDE, as Director of Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC; AMBROSE SCHWALLIE, as Director of Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC; WSMS PENSION PLAN, f/k/a Westinghouse Savannah River Company-Bechtel Savannah River Inc Pension Plan, f/k/a Westinghouse Safety Management Solutions, LLC Pension Plan, f/k/a Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC Pension Plan; WASHINGTON SAFETY MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS, LLC; WASHINGTON SAFETY MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS, LLC PENSION PLAN; WASHINGTON GROUP INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendants. Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Aiken. J. Michelle Childs, District Judge. (1:06-cv-02805-JMC) Argued: September 16, 2014 Decided: November 17, 2014 Before WILKINSON, GREGORY, and KEENAN, Circuit Judges. Affirmed by unpublished opinion. Judge Gregory wrote opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson and Judge Keenan joined. the ARGUED: H. Douglas Hinson, ALSTON & BIRD, LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Stanley G. Jackson, JACKSON LAW OFFICES, Aiken, South Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Emily S. Costin, ALSTON & BIRD, LLP, Washington, D.C.; Gray T. Culbreath, GALLIVAN, WHITE & BOYD, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants. Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit. 2 GREGORY, Circuit Judge: Noorali Employee “Sam” Savani Retirement filed Income this class action under Act (“ERISA”), Security the § 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. § 1132 (a)(1)(B)(2006), claiming that Washington Safety Management Solutions, (“WSMS”) 1 LLC’s termination of an early retirement pension supplement violated ERISA’s anti-cutback provision. As we held in the first appeal of this case, the “clear terms” of the WSMS Pension Plan (the “Plan”) “include the [early retirement pension supplement] in the definition of ‘accrued benefit.’” Savani v. Wash. Safety Mgmt. Solutions, LLC (Savani I), 474 F. App’x 310, 316 (4th Cir. Mar. 20, 2012) (per curiam) (unpublished). In this second appeal, WSMS argues that it may lawfully eliminate that early retirement pension Robert Taylor, and (defined below). benefit a as similarly to situated another subset of employee, the class We again hold that the unambiguous terms of the Plan clearly include the pension benefit at issue within the Plan’s definition of “accrued benefit,” and that WSMS may not lawfully eliminate the benefit. We therefore affirm the grant of summary judgment to the plaintiffs-appellees. 1 WSMS is now called URS Professional Solutions, LLC, and both WSMS and the appellees’ previous employer, Westinghouse Savannah River Company (“WSRC”), are wholly owned subsidiaries of a company called URS Energy & Construction. For ease of reference and consistency with this Court’s prior opinion, this memorandum refers only to WSMS and WSRC. 3 I. While Savani was the focus of the first appeal, Taylor and the subclass now take center stage. Much of the relevant background is set forth in great detail in Savani I, 474 F. App’x at 312-14, and is repeated below to the extent necessary. Taylor, like Savani, was an employee of the Westinghouse Savannah River Company (“WSRC”) in 1997 when WSMS was formed. “At its inception, WSMS recruited a number of WSRC employees, including Savani [and Taylor], to transfer to the newly formed company.” Id. at 312. Taylor and the other WSRC employees “were informed of the employee benefit plans available to newly transferred employees.” Id. Taylor was then and remains a participant in the Plan. Prior to a 2004 amendment, the Plan provided in relevant part: “‘Accrued determination, the Benefit’ normal means, retirement as of Pension any date computed of under Section 4.01(b) . . . less the WSRC Plan offset as described in Section 4.13, plus any Section 4.12 . . . .” applicable supplements described in Additionally, the Plan provided that an “early retirement Pension shall be a deferred Pension beginning on the first day following the Member’s Normal Retirement Date and . . . shall be equal to his Accrued Benefit. Member may elect to receive an 4 early However, the retirement Pension beginning before his Normal Retirement Date. . . .” Finally, the Plan described the following supplemental benefit: 4.12 Supplemental Benefits (a) If a Member who: (i) otherwise satisfies the requirements for a Pension under this Plan; and (ii) has at least one year of service with WSMS; and (iii) transferred to the Plan from an Affiliated Employer on or before January 1, 1998 or transfers to the Plan from WSRC; and (iv) retires before his Normal Retirement active service on or before October 1, 1998, Age from he shall be entitled to a monthly supplement (which shall commence with the first Pension payment under the Plan on account of such retirement and the last payment shall be in the month preceding the Member’s attainment of Normal Retirement Age) equal to the following: [omitted] 2 “On December 28, 2004, the Plan’s benefits committee amended the Plan to eliminate § 4.12(a), which granted a $700 monthly benefit to Plan members electing retirement on or after January 1, 2005.” at 313. Later, on January 3, 2006, to take early Savani I, 474 F. App’x the benefits committee further amended the Plan, effective December 31, 2005 (“the 2005 Amendment”). the following Among other things, the 2005 Amendment included provision: “Notwithstanding 2 anything to the As discussed in our first opinion, § 4.12(b) of the Plan sets forth an additional $200 benefit payable upon reaching Normal Retirement Age. The $200 benefit is not at issue for purposes of the current appeal. 5 contrary in this Plan, ‘frozen’ as of December thereafter.” a Member’s 31, Accrued 2005 and Further, it provided: Benefit shall not shall be increase “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Plan, effective December 31, 2005, no additional Credited Service will be awarded or earned under the Plan for any purpose. In other words, all Credited Service will be ‘frozen’ as of December 31, 2005.” The 2005 Amendment also “added the following sentence at the end” of § 1.13 of the Plan: “Although the Employee shall accordance Plan with is frozen continue the as to terms of earn of December Eligibility the Plan for 31, 2005, an Service in purposes of determining eligibility for certain benefits and eligibility for a vested Pension.” During the first appeal of this case, Savani successfully challenged the 2004 elimination of § 4.12(a) as a violation of ERISA’s anti-cutback provision. See id. at 316 (“[W]e hold that the Plan’s clear terms include the § 4.12(a) supplement in the definition of accrued benefits.”). The 2005 Amendment was not directly at issue at that time. Upon remand, the district court certified Savani’s case as a class action. Savani is the lead plaintiff for the class, which is defined to be: Employees of Washington Safety Management Solutions, LLC, formerly Westinghouse Safety Management Solutions, LLC [collectively “WSMS”] who (1) are 6 members of the WSMS Plan, (2) have at least one year of service with WSMS, and (3) transferred to the Plan from an Affiliated Employer as defined in § 1.02 of the Plan on or before January 1, 1998, or transferred to the Plan from Washington Savannah River Company, LLC, formerly, Westinghouse Savannah River Company, LLC [collectively, “WSRC”]. During the course of the district court proceedings, WSMS “opposed paying certain members of the above class who after December 31, 2005 have or may have become eligible for § 4.12(a) WSMS [Plan] benefits as related to freeze of benefits as of December 31, 2005.” The appellees therefore moved to add Taylor as a party and subclass representative, and the district court granted the motion. Thus, Taylor is the lead plaintiff of the subclass, which is defined to be: All members of the Class defined above who, as of December 21, 2005, either (1) did not have 15 total years of service with WSMS or an Affiliated Employer as defined in § 1.02 of the Plan, or (2) was not 50 years of age, or (3) did not meet the 25 years of service and age 45 but less than 50 years of age requirements for an Optional Retirement Pension as defined in § 4.04 of the WSMS Plan. On summary July 31, judgment 2012, on the the parties issue of filed whether cross the motions 2005 for Amendment resulted in the lawful elimination of the § 4.12(a) benefit for Taylor and the members of the subclass. parties’ motions, the district court In considering the observed that the 2005 Amendment permitted Plan members to continue to earn Eligibility Service years in order to determine the members’ “eligibility 7 for certain benefits and eligibility for a vested Pension.” In light of the unambiguous language of the 2005 Amendment, as well as this Circuit’s § 4.12(a) prior supplement holding violated that the ERISA’s elimination anti-cutback of the provision, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Taylor and the subclass members and held that they are entitled to receive the supplement. WSMS subsequently filed a motion to remand the matter to the Plan’s benefits committee, or in the alternative, for the district court to reconsider its summary judgment ruling. WSMS argued that the district court had “erred by not remanding the case back to the Committee for an initial interpretation argued in of the the language alternative of the that 2005 the Amendment.” district misconstrued the nature of the parties’ dispute. court denied unambiguous the Plan motion, language, reasoning and that that it remand court It had The district had “would interpreted be futile because a different interpretation of this clear language would be an abuse of the committee’s discretion.” On December 13, 2013, WSMS timely filed this appeal. II. On appeal, the WSMS argues that Taylor and the members of the subclass are not eligible for the § 4.12(a) benefit because they did not satisfy the requisite eligibility requirements for 8 the benefit prior to the effective date of the 2005 Amendment. Alternatively, the WSMS argues that the district court erred by failing to remand this matter to the Plan’s benefits committee. A. We novo. review a court’s order granting summary judgment de United McGill Corp. v. Stinnett, 154 F.3d 168, 170 (4th Cir. 1998). And “[i]n an appeal under ERISA, we . . . employ[] the same standards governing the district court’s review of the plan administrator’s decision.” Co., 609 F.3d 622, 629 (4th Williams v. Metro. Life. Ins. Cir. 2010). Where “the plan expressly grants the plan administrator discretionary authority to construe the provisions, the administrator’s reviewed for abuse of discretion.” decision is United McGill Corp., 154 F.3d at 170 (citing Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989)). “Under this deferential standard, ‘the administrator or fiduciary’s decision will not be disturbed if it is reasonable, different even conclusion if this court independently.’” would Id. have come (quoting Ellis Metro. Life Ins. Co., 126 F.3d 228, 232 (4th Cir. 1997)). the Plan grants the benefits committee discretion to interpret the Plan.” “total and to a v. Here, complete But “even as an ERISA plan confers discretion in its administrator to interpret the plan, the administrator is not free to alter the terms of the plan or to construe unambiguous terms other than as written.” 9 Colucci v. Agfa Corp. Severance Pay Plan, 431 F.3d 170, 176 (4th Cir. 2005), abrogated on other grounds by Champion v. Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc., 550 F.3d 353 (4th Cir. 2008). The discretionary authority to interpret a plan “is not implicated . . . [where] the terms of the plan itself are clear.” Kress v. Food Emp’rs Labor Relations Ass’n, 391 F.3d 563, 567 (4th Cir. 2010). B. WSMS argues subclass did that not because satisfy Taylor the age and and the members service of the eligibility requirements for the § 4.12(a) benefit prior to the effective date of Thus, the the 2005 Amendment, argument goes, they the never elimination accrued of the the benefit. benefit for Taylor and the subclass does not constitute an unlawful cutback of accrued benefits. This argument does not square with our previous holding in this case that the unambiguous language of the Plan’s definition of accrued benefit includes the § 4.12(a) benefit. Savani I, 474 F. App’x at 315-16. Under the law of the case doctrine, “when a court decides upon a rule of law, that decision should continue to govern the same issues in subsequent stages in the same case.” TFWS, Inc. v. Franchot, 572 F.3d 186, 191 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v. Aramony, 166 F.3d Accordingly, 10 655, 661 (4th Cir. 1991)). once the decision of an appellate court establishes the law of the case, it “must be followed in all subsequent proceedings in the same case in the trial court or on a later appeal [] unless: (1) a subsequent trial produces substantially different evidence, (2) controlling authority has since made a contrary decision of law applicable to the issue, or (3) the prior decision was clearly erroneous and would work manifest injustice.” Id. (quoting Aramony, 166 F.3d at 661) (alteration in original). Here, the parties have not presented substantially different evidence, we are aware of no new controlling authority, and WSMS has not argued that our prior decision was clearly erroneous. Therefore, our analysis must be guided by our prior holding that the $700 monthly supplement set forth in § 4.12(a) of the Plan is an accrued benefit. There is no dispute that an employer sponsored retirement plan cannot ERISA’s eliminate anti-cutback Importantly, “ERISA an “accrued benefit” provision. defines 29 ‘accrued without U.S.C. benefit’ violating § 1054(g)(1). as ‘. . . the employee’s accrued benefit determined under the plan and . . . expressed in the form of an annual benefit commencing at normal retirement age . . . .’” Savani I, 474 F. App’x at 315 (quoting 26 U.S.C. § 411(a)(7)(A)(i) (2010)). This statutory definition of an accrued benefit is “a signpost, directing us to look at the terms of the plan at issue.” Bd. of Trs. of the Sheet Metal Workers’ Nat’l Pension Fund v. Comm’r, 318 F.3d 599, 602-03 (4th Cir. 2003) (emphasis added). As 11 we previously held, the § 4.12(a) benefit is an accrued benefit. at 316. Savani I, 474 F. App’x Because Taylor and the members of the subclass can or already do satisfy the requisite eligibility requirements for the § 4.12(a) benefit, WSMS may not lawfully eliminate that benefit as to Taylor and the subclass. WSMS argues that Taylor and the members of the subclass had a mere, unprotected benefit because requirements expectation they prior did to December receiving satisfy not of the 31, 2005. the age In § 4.12(a) and service advancing this argument, WSMS relies heavily on the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Cinotto v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 674 F.3d 1285 (11th Cir. 2012). There, part of the Delta retirement plan definition of “Accrued Benefit” stated: No Participant shall have an Accrued Benefit based on future or projected service or Earnings regardless of the use of future dates by the Plan. Such future dates and the result of projected service on future Earnings on a Participant’s potential retirement benefit are not part of the Participant’s Accrued Benefit. Cinotto, 674 F.3d at 1287-88. this case, provided: Plan are froze pension The Delta plan, like the Plan in benefits with an amendment that “Effective December 31, 2005, all benefits under the frozen for all Participants and there shall be no further accruals of benefits under this plan after that date.” Id. at 1289. of the The amendment “also added this language to the end [Delta] Plan’s definition 12 of ‘Accrued Benefit’: ‘A Participant shall not accrue any additional benefits under the Plan after December 31, 2005.’” Id. Under the amendment, “no additional months of service or earnings would be taken into account in calculating either [an employee’s] termination benefit under the [Delta] Plan.” retirement Id. or As a result of the Delta plan language, the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff, who had not reached the age required to receive the benefit at issue before December expectation of a future accrual.” 31, 2005, “had at most an Id. at 1297. Unlike the amendment to the Delta plan, the 2005 Amendment to the Plan at issue here explicitly incorporated future service into the calculation of an accrued benefit. Amendment stated Eligibility certain that Service benefits,” Plan years members “to including would Indeed, the 2005 continue determin[e] the to eligibility § 4.12(a) benefit. earn for The unambiguous terms of the Plan provide that Eligibility Service years determine whether a Member “otherwise satisfies the requirements for a Pension under this Plan” such that he becomes eligible for the § 4.12(a) $700 supplement. 3 Accordingly, the appellants’ reliance on Cinotto -- which involved a pension plan 3 Pensions include, for example, the normal retirement pension set forth in Plan § 4.01, the early retirement pension set forth in Plan § 4.03, and the optional retirement pension set forth in Plan § 4.04. Each of these pensions references “Eligibility Service.” 13 with a materially different definition of an “accrued benefit” - is misplaced. See Sheet Metal Workers’ Nat’l Pension Fund v. Comm’r, 318 F.3d at 602-03 (stating that courts “look at the terms of the plan at issue”). WSMS also argues remanded this matter reference to “certain that to the district the benefits benefits” in “Eligibility Service” is ambiguous. that it is unclear whether court should committee the have the definition Plan’s because of Specifically, WSMS contends the term “certain benefits” encompasses the § 4.12(a) benefit. This argument is unavailing. Before definition the 2005 Amendment, the of “Eligibility Service” included a single reference to “certain benefits,” and the 2005 Amendment benefits.” added a second reference to “certain It is undisputed that the single, pre-2005 Amendment reference to “certain benefits” included the § 4.12(a) benefit. To credit WSMS’s ambiguity argument would require a finding that the second use of the phrase means something different than the first. term There is no valid reason for the two uses of the same within the same definition Rather, the language of members may continue to the earn 2005 to have different Amendment Eligibility is clear: Service certain benefits, including the § 4.12(a) benefit. meanings. years Plan for The benefits committee’s discretion is not implicated given the unambiguous language of the amendment. Kress, 14 391 F.2d at 567. Accordingly, it was not error for the district court to decline to remand the matter. Somewhat relatedly, WSMS argues that “Fourth Circuit law is clear that an ERISA plan participant is ‘required’ to exhaust his/her administrative contends that challenged the the remedies original meaning of before lead bringing plaintiff, ‘certain benefits’ suit.” Savani, of It “never ‘Eligibility Service’ in the Freeze Amendment,” and that “Taylor has never made any claim to the” benefits committee. Therefore, WSMS continues, because the district court’s summary judgment ruling involved the interpretation of the Plan’s terms, the court should have first remanded the matter to the benefits committee for it to interpret the Plan in the first instance. We need not decide whether any procedural error has occurred. In reaching its decision, the district court did not engage in any novel interpretation of the Plan’s language. Rather, the law of this case is that the Plan’s definition of accrued benefit includes the § 4.12(a) benefit, and as discussed above, the term “certain benefits” unambiguously encompasses the § 4.12(a) benefit. Thus, the benefits committee’s authority to interpret the Plan is not implicated. See Kress, 391 F.2d at 567. Finally, although the parties devote a substantial amount of their briefing to whether the § 4.12(a) benefit is an “early retirement benefit” as that term is defined in the applicable 15 regulations, we need not resolve the issue. Regardless of how the benefit is characterized from a statutory perspective, the fact remains -- however much WSMS might wish to deny it –- that the specific language of the WSMS Plan incorporates the § 4.12(a) benefit into the definition of “accrued benefit.” And “[w]hile we have held that unfunded, contingent early retirement benefits or severance payments are not secured by ERISA itself, the drafters benefits as of a accrued protections.” retirement or plan vested, may and choose thereby to define trigger any ERISA’s Savani I., 474 F. App’x at 314 n.3 (citing Pierce v. Sec. Trust Life Ins. Co., 979, F.2d 23 (4th Cir. 1992)); see id. at 316 (“Stand-alone, ancillary welfare benefits generally are not independently protected by ERISA. Here, however, the Plan plainly incorporated . . . [§ 4.12(a)] into its definition of ‘accrued benefit.’” (citation omitted)). the choice to include the § 4.12(a) benefit Because WSMS made as part of the Plan’s accrued benefit, it is protected under the anti-cutback provision of ERISA. The WSMS must accept the consequences of that choice. III. We reaffirm our holding that the Plan’s clear terms include the § 4.12(a) supplement in the definition of “accrued benefit.” Taylor and the subclass members are thus entitled to receive 16 that benefit so long as they satisfy the age and requirements if and when they elect early retirement. service For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED. 17