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Shea v. Iron Workers District Council of New England Pension Fund

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 1, 2016

THOMAS M. SHEA, Plaintiff,
v.
IRON WORKERS DISTRICT COUNCIL OF NEW ENGLAND PENSION FUND, TRUSTEES OF THE IRON WORKERS DISTRICT COUNCIL OF NEW ENGLAND PENSION FUND, IRON WORKERS DISTRICT COUNSEL OF NEW ENGLAND ANNUITY FUND and TRUSTEES OF THE IRON WORKERS DISTRICT COUNCIL OF NEW ENGLAND ANNUITY FUND, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

NATHANIEL M. GORTON, District Judge.

This case involves allegations that two employers unlawfully refused to award pension credits and annuity contributions to an employee for his periods of military service, all in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 ("USERRA"), 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301, et seq.

Pending before the Court are plaintiff's and defendants' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion will be allowed, in part, and denied, in part, and defendants' motion will be denied.

I. Background and procedural history

A. The parties

Plaintiff Thomas M. Shea ("Shea" or "plaintiff") is an ironworker and union member who has participated in defendants' pension and annuity fund programs since 1982. Plaintiff enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve in 1999 and now serves as a Senior Chief Petty Officer. He resides in Massachusetts.

Defendant Iron Workers District Council of New England Pension Fund ("the Pension Fund") is managed in accordance with a multi-employer, defined-benefit pension plan known as "the Pension Plan." The Pension Plan is an employee pension benefit plan within the meaning of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A). The Pension Fund is an employer within the meaning of § 4303(4)(c) of USERRA, with respect to its obligation to provide benefits to eligible employees pursuant to § 4318.

Defendant Trustees of the Iron Workers District Council of New England Pension Fund ("the Pension Fund Trustees") administers the Pension Fund and is the "plan sponsor" under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1002(16)(B).

Defendant Iron Workers District Council of New England Annuity Fund ("the Annuity Fund") is managed in accordance with a multi-employer, defined-contribution pension plan known as "the Annuity Plan." The Annuity Plan is an employee pension plan within the meaning of § 1002(2)(A) of ERISA and is an employer within the meaning of § 4303(4)(c) of USERRA, with respect to its obligation to provide benefits to eligible employees pursuant to § 4318.

Defendant Trustees of the Iron Workers District Council of New England Annuity Fund ("the Annuity Fund Trustees") administers the Annuity Fund and is the plan sponsor under § 1002(16)(B) of ERISA.

B. The Pension Plan

The Pension Plan provides monthly benefits to retired employees who have accumulated a total of 30 pension credits and at least 15 pension credits as of December 31, 2006. Employees receive 1) one full pension credit if they work at least 1, 200 hours in a calendar year, 2) a fraction of a pension credit if they work between 300 and 1, 200 hours in a calendar year and 3) no pension credit if they work fewer than 300 hours in a calendar year. Employees who work more than 1, 200 hours in a calendar year can "bank" the extra hours and apply them to another calendar year.

The Pension Plan allows servicemembers returning from a period of military service to accrue retroactively pension credits for that period as long as they 1) are not dishonorably discharged, 2) return to employment with a covered employer within 90 days of completing the period of service, 3) work at least 300 hours for a covered employer within one year from the date of discharge and 4) accrue 2.5 pension credits within five years after the date of discharge.

The Pension Plan also incorporates the five-year limit set forth in USERRA which provides servicemembers with reemployment rights and benefits so long as, inter alia,

the cumulative length of the absence and of all previous absences from a position of employment with that employer by reason of service in the uniformed services does not exceed five years....

§ 4312(a)(2). The five-year limit does not apply to periods of military service during which the servicemember was ordered to or retained on active duty 1) in accordance with 10 U.S.C. § 12302 which pertains to servicemembers in "Ready Reserve", see § 4312(c)(4)(A), or 2) under any provision of law due to a war or national emergency declared by the President or Congress, as determined by the appropriate Secretary, unless the active duty consists of training, see § 4312(c)(4)(B).

C. The Annuity Plan

The Annuity Plan requires the Annuity Fund Trustees to "establish individual Employee Accounts to track each Annuity Plan member's interest in the Annuity Fund." A servicemember who is timely reemployed after a period of military service is entitled to an annuity contribution from the employer to his or her individual employee account for that period of military service. The Annuity Plan places the responsibility for making those contributions on the last employer for whom the servicemember worked before entering military service.

The Annuity Plan also incorporates the five-year limit on cumulative military service set forth in § 4312(a)(2) and the active duty exemptions set forth in § 4312(c)(4)(A) and (B).

D. Plaintiff's military and employment history

Over the course of his employment from 1982 to 2007, plaintiff participated in the Pension and Annuity Funds, earned 22 pension credits and banked 6.13 supplementary credits. His last employer prior to his first military deployment in 2007 was Capco Steel Corporation ("Capco Steel"), a company which "has since gone out of business."

1. First deployment

Plaintiff's first deployment, to Iraq, began on June 4, 2007 and ended ten and a half months later on April 18, 2008. His order of deployment expressly stated:

The member is ordered to active duty... in support of the national emergency declared under Presidential Proclamation 7463 of 14 SEP 01. Under the provisions of [38 U.S.C. § 4312(c)(4)(A) and (B)], this period of active duty is exempt from the 5-year cumulative service limitation on reemployment rights under [USERRA].

On March 11, 2002, the Secretary of the Navy issued a memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations declaring that:

In accordance with 38 U.S.C. 4312(c)(4)(b)..., I have determined that Navy and Marine Corps Reserve personnel voluntarily ordered to or retained [on] active duty (other than for training) in support of the national emergency declared under Presidential Proclamation 7463 of [14] September 2001, will have those periods of service exempted [f]rom the five-year limitation for reemployment rights under [USERRA].

After his honorable discharge from deployment, plaintiff attended military training for 58 days between mid-April, 2008 and late August, 2008. He subsequently worked 112 hours for Capco Steel between August 25, 2008 and September 14, 2008.

2. Second deployment

Shea's second deployment, to Afghanistan, began on January 1, 2009 and ended one year later on January 6, 2010. His order of deployment contained the same declaration of exemptions under § 4312(c)(4)(A) and (B) as the first order of deployment, excerpted above. To prepare for the deployment, he commenced his time on military duty a few months in advance so that he could attend Construction Inspector School from October 15, 2008 to December 17, 2008.

Plaintiff asserts that he did not apply for reemployment when he returned from his second deployment because 1) his third deployment began within 90 days of his date of honorable discharge and 2) the Pension Plan purportedly treats "any non-work periods less than 90 days apart" as one continuous period.

3. Third deployment

Shea's next deployment, to Bahrain, began on April 1, 2010 and was completed six months later on September 30, 2010. Plaintiff avers that he was "[o]rdered to active duty for special work under the authority of title 10 USC section 12301(d)" and that the Secretary of the Navy had previously issued a memorandum, dated March 1, 2007, providing that

[t]he secretaries of the Military Departments have each determined the period of service under 10 U.S.C. 12301(d) as exempt from the five year limit as provided in 38 U.S.C. 4312(c)(4)(B).

After he was honorably discharged from deployment, plaintiff left immediately for his next deployment. The parties agree that his third and fourth deployments occurred during one continuous period.

4. Fourth deployment and applications for benefits

Plaintiff was sent to Kuwait for his fourth deployment beginning on October 1, 2010. His military documentation indicates that the deployment was completed 11 months later, on September 3, 2011. The order for his fourth deployment contained the same declaration of exemptions under § 4312(c)(4)(A) and (B) as the first order of deployment.

Plaintiff first applied for service pension benefits in February, 2011 and again in August, 2011. The Pension Fund Trustees denied the applications based upon his purported failure to satisfy the reemployment requirements in the Pension Plan that he 1) timely return to covered employment, 2) work at least 300 hours within one year of his date of discharge and 3) earn 2.5 pension credits within five years of the date of his discharge.

Prior to his official release from deployment, plaintiff purportedly worked eight hours for Francis Harvey & Sons on August 26, 2011. He also sent a letter, dated August 26, 2011, to a ...


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