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Garcia-Tatupu v. Bell

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 18, 2017

LINNEA GARCIA-TATUPU, Plaintiff,
v.
BERT BELL/PETER ROZELLE NFL PLAYER RETIREMENT PLAN, and THE NFL PLAYER SUPPLEMENTAL DISABILITY PLAN Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DOUGLAS P. WOODLOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Defendants in this ERISA matter, involving the claim of a divorced spouse for pension benefits as a result of a nunc pro tunc state court judgment, have moved to dismiss the action. The complaint has been supplemented by the parties with most - but not all - documents referenced in the pleading. I will deny the motion to dismiss as now argued and in this Memorandum outline the need for further record development that may permit early and definitive dispositive judgment practice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In connection with the motion to dismiss now before me, I recite the facts as asserted in the complaint and as properly supplemented. I draw all reasonable inferences in the Plaintiff's favor. Alternative Energy, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 267 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2001).

         Plaintiff, Linnea Garcia-Tatupu married Mosiula F. Tatupu on July 1, 1978. Mosiula Tatupu resided in Wrentham, Massachusetts and was a player in the National Football League from 1978 to 1991; he was also a member of the National Football League Players Association. On December 12 1997, the Plaintiff and Mosiula Tatupu divorced. According to the allegations of the complaint, the divorce judgment entitled Linnea Garcia-Tatupu to receive pension benefits paid to Mosiula Tatupu. Mosiula Tatupu died on February 23, 2010. The Norfolk County Probate and Family Court, which had entered the divorce decree, entered an order on October 5, 2012 directing that a domestic relations order entered on December 29, 2011 be applied nunc pro tunc to September 24, 1997.

         One of the Defendants is the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (the “Retirement Plan”) the entity recognized under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to administer the applicable retirement plan. The other named Defendant is The NFL Supplemental Disability Plan (the “Disability Plan”), which is also recognized under ERISA to administer the retirement plan at issue here. For purposes of this motion, the focus will be on the Retirement Plan.[1]

         The Plaintiff requested pension benefits through the Retirement Plan in accordance with the December 29, 2011 domestic relations order. That request was denied through a letter dated March 23, 2012. The Plaintiff appealed the Plan's denial of benefits decision, but the initial decision was upheld in a December 20, 2012 decision. The plaintiff asserts that the December 20, 2012 denial of pension benefits by the Retirement Plan was wrongful.

         Before me is a motion the Defendants have filed to dismiss the Plaintiff's claim on two grounds: (1) improper venue, and (2) failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. I will deny the motion to dismiss (and the related motion to transfer venue). Because of its relevance to the question of a viable claim over the longer term, I also preliminarily consider grounds under which the Retirement Board might be held to have erred in their denial of benefits decision and in doing so frame further dispositive motion practice.

         II. SETTLING ON A VENUE

         The Defendants claim that venue in Massachusetts is improper under ERISA. ERISA provides that: “Where an action under this subchapter is brought in a district court of the United States, it may be brought in the district where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). The parties do not dispute that a breach, if any, took place in California, because that is where the Plaintiff now resides and the impact of the denial was experienced. It is also not disputed that the Defendants reside in Maryland, because that is where the Defendant is headquartered. Where the plan is administered and where the Defendant may be “found” are, however, disputed by the parties. Focusing on the issue of where the Defendant may be “found, ” the Defendant argues that the Plan is only found in Maryland, while the Plaintiff contends that the Plan is also found in Massachusetts.

         The term “where the defendant may be found” has been construed liberally. Varsic v. U.S. Dist. Court for Cent. Dist. of California, 607 F.2d 245, 248 (9th Cir. 1979). In adopting this liberal construction, the Ninth Circuit considered the similarly liberal constructions of “found” in other contexts, such as in anti-trust and copyright disputes. Id. The Varsic court used the minimum contacts test of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945) to determine where the defendant was “found.” Id. at 248-49; see also Waeltz v. Delta Pilots Ret. Plan, 301 F.3d 804, 810 (7th Cir. 2002) (“We believe that the decision in Varsic is correct. A fund can be found in a judicial district if it has the sort of “minimum contacts” with that district that would support the exercise of personal jurisdiction under the rule of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310 (1945).”). Varsic also made clear that the defendant need not be “found” only where the plan is administered. Id. Two of my colleagues have followed the Varsic court's liberal construction of where a plan may be “found.” See Kaufmann v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 667 F.Supp.2d 205, 207 (D. Mass. 2009) (Stearns, J); Cole v. Cent. States Se. & Sw. Areas Health & Welfare Fund, 225 F.Supp.2d 96, 102 (D. Mass. 2002) (Wolf, J) (adopting magistrate judge's report and recommendation, which itself followed Varsic).

         Under Varsic's teaching, a defendant may be found in a district in which he has “certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Cole, 227 F.Supp. at 198 (quoting International Shoe, 326 U.S. at 316). “The defendant's conduct must make it reasonable that the defendant would anticipate being haled into court here.” Id. (citing World-Wide Volkswagen v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980)). Additionally, “[w]here the defendant's activities connected to the forum are not ‘continuous and systematic, ' the litigation must result from alleged injuries that arise out of or are related to those activities.” Id. (ci ting Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 476 (1985)).

         The Plaintiff argues that the Plan has sufficient minimum contacts with Massachusetts because of its provision of benefits to players affiliated with the New England Patriots football team in Foxborough, Massachusetts. In Varsic, the plaintiff's complaint was brought in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, and the defendant sought to dismiss or to transfer the action to the Southern District of New York. Varsic, 607 F.2d at 247. In evaluating whether the defendant was “found” in the Central District of California by applying the minimum contacts test, the Varsic court observed that the defendant received contributions from employers on behalf of employees working in the Central District of California and that the defendant provided benefits to some beneficiaries residing in the district. Id. at 249. Since the fund purposefully placed itself in a fiduciary capacity and received contributions generated from the forum, the Varsic court ultimately determined that there was specific jurisdiction, and that the defendant was “found” in the Central District of California. Id. at 250.

         Similarly here, even though the Plaintiff's alleged benefits were denied while she was living in California, the denial directly involved the fund's activities in the District of Massachusetts. The Plaintiff and Tatupu lived in and accrued the right to pension benefits within the District of Massachusetts while Tatupu played football in this District for the New England Patriots. Additionally, I note that as in Varsic, the Defendants here did not oppose to this court's exercise of personal jurisdiction, presumably conceding minimum contacts with this jurisdiction.

         In Waeltz, the Seventh Circuit dismissed a case for improper venue where only two participants of the plan lived in the area covered by the court's jurisdiction and there were no other meaningful contacts between the plan and that district. Waeltz, 301 F.3d at 811. The plaintiffs, Waeltz and Johnson, lived in Florida and the Southern District of Illinois, respectively. Id. at 805-06. Neither received benefits in the Southern District of Illinois, since Johnson had not yet retired. Id. at 806. Furthermore, neither plaintiff earned any benefits in the Southern District of Illinois because neither had performed any work there. Id. Tatupu, to be sure, had also not begun receiving benefit payments, but unlike the plaintiffs in Waeltz, Tatupu earned benefits in the District of Massachusetts while employed with the New England Patriots football team. I am satisfied the Defendants are “found” in Massachusetts and venue is proper here under ERISA.

         The Defendants also argue that regardless of whether venue is proper in Massachusetts, I should use my discretion to transfer this case to Maryland. Under 29 U.S.C. 1404(a), venue may be transferred to another district or division where the case might have been brought “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, ” or “in the interest of justice.” Simply because venue is proper in a particular jurisdiction, of course, does not make it appropriate. Kaufmann, 667 F.Supp.2d at 207. District courts have broad power to transfer cases, and in doing so, must weigh both private and public interests. Id. at 208. Private interests include: relative ease of access to sources of proof, availability of compulsory process, comparative trial cost, and ability to enforce a judgment. Id. at 208. Public interests include: practical difficulties of unnecessarily imposing upon a busy court (or citizens called to jury duty), the obligation to hear a case more fairly adjudicated elsewhere, and having a judge more familiar with relevant law make the requisite legal determinations. Id. at 208. Of the factors identified, the convenience of expected witnesses is generally most salient. Id. at n. 4 (quoting Boateng v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 460 F.Supp.2d 270, 275 (D. Mass. 2006)).

         But there are no expected witnesses in the traditional sense here; I will ultimately decide this case through dispositive motion practice based on the administrative record used by the Plan to determine that the Plaintiff was ineligible for benefits. Similarly, the location of documents and ease of access to evidence are not factors that weigh heavily here because the operative documents are limited in scope. It should be noted, nevertheless, that relevant court orders and the divorce judgment at issue were obtained in Massachusetts courts.

         The thrust of the Defendants' argument to transfer venue centers on the belief that the convenience of parties weighs heavily in favor of shifting the venue to Maryland. The Defendants reason that this will lessen the burden on the Plan, and its beneficiaries, because the travel related expenses will be lessened. The Defendants observe that a change of venue to Maryland is not any less convenient to the Plaintiff, who resides in California. Although the Plaintiff's counsel is located in Massachusetts, that factor does not as such weigh heavily in decision. See Dearing v. Sigma Chem. Co., 1 F.Supp.2d 660, 665 (S.D. Tex. 1998). What I do weigh heavily, however, is the strong presumption in favor of the Plaintiff's choice of forum. Coady v. Ashcraft & Gerel, 223 F.3d 1, 11 (1st Cir. 2000). The Defendant has the burden of “establish[ing] that, on balance, the interests of justice and convenience weigh heavily in favor of transfer.” Boston Post Partners II, LLP v. Paskett, No. 15-13804-FDS, 2016 WL 3746474, at *9 (D. Mass. July 8, 2016) (quoting Systemation, Inc. v. Engel Indus., 992 F.Supp. 58, 64 (D. Mass. 1997)). The Defendants have not done so here. The purported inconvenience and expense of travel to Boston from Maryland for the Defendants' representatives is not enough to tip the scale against the Plaintiff's chosen forum.

         The Defendants have failed to meet their burden of showing that any inconvenience of litigating in Massachusetts is sufficiently burdensome to justify disturbing the Plaintiff's choice ...


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