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Trustees of the Iron Workers District Council of New England Pension v. Monadnock Steel & Precast LLC

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 13, 2017

TRUSTEES OF THE IRON WORKERS DISTRICT COUNCIL OF NEW ENGLAND PENSION, HEALTH AND WELFARE ANNUITY, VACATION, AND EDUCATION FUNDS, AND OTHER FUNDS Plaintiffs,
v.
MONADNOCK STEEL & PRECAST LLC; MONADNOCK IRON, LLC; AND MARK AHO Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PATTI B. SARIS PATTI B. SARIS, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         This is an action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1132, to recover delinquent contributions to trust funds administered by Plaintiffs, Trustees of the Iron Workers District Council of New England Pension, Health & Welfare, Annuity, Vacation, Education Funds (“Trustees”). Defendants, Monadnock Steel & Precast LLC (“Monadnock Steel”), Monadnock Iron, LLC (“Monadnock Iron”), and Mark Aho have filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment (Docket No. 8). After hearing, the Court DENIES the motion to dismiss and DENIES the motion for summary judgment without prejudice.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         When all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of Plaintiffs, the complaint alleges the following facts.

         Defendant Aho owned and managed Monadnock Iron, a limited liability company located in Rindge, New Hampshire, which engaged in steel erection and installation subcontracting. On October 30, 2007, Aho signed a collective bargaining agreement on behalf of Monadnock Iron with local unions (“Iron-CBA”), which required it to make contributions to the Taft-Hartley trust fund administered by Plaintiffs for each hour worked by any employee for pension, health insurance, and other employee benefits. Monadnock Iron was dissolved in July 2011.

         In September 2015, to avoid the Iron-CBA, ASho formed Monadnock Steel, located at 52 Whittemore Hill Road, New Ipswich, New Hampshire, which was previously the Registered Office Address provided for the Registered Agent of Monadnock Iron, Aho. Like Monadnock Iron, its principal purposes are steel erection and installation subcontracting. As owner or controller of Monadnock Steel, Aho submits bids to customers, negotiates bid prices, engages in other contract negotiations, hires employees, and coordinates the work and operation of Monadnock Steel. Operating under Monadnock Steel, Aho refused to pay contributions on at least three construction sites in Massachusetts.

         STANDARD

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss the Court asks “whether the well-pleaded factual allegations, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, state a claim for which relief can be granted.” Germanowski v. Harris, 854 F.3d 68, 71 (1st Cir. 2017). Plaintiffs' facts, which are taken as true, and the inferences they support must “‘plausibly narrate a claim for relief.'” Id. at 71 (quoting Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Comm., 669 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 2012)).

         For a claim to be plausible, it must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Germanowski, 854 F.3d at 72 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). However, “a complaint need not plead facts sufficient to make a prima facie case or allege all facts necessary to succeed at trial.” Medina-Velázquez v. Hernández-Gregorat, 767 F.3d 103, 108 (1st Cir. 2014). A well-pleaded complaint can go forward even if recovery is unlikely and proof of the necessary facts are unviable. See id. at 109; see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007); Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño- Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011). “Ultimately, ‘the relevant inquiry focuses on the reasonableness of the inference of liability that the plaintiff is asking the court to draw from the facts alleged in the complaint.'” Medina-Velázquez, 767 F.3d at 109 (quoting Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 13) (internal brackets removed). The court may take judicial notice of undisputed facts from public records. See Giragosian v. Ryan, 547 F.3d 59, 66 (1st Cir. 2008) (“A court may consider matters of public record in resolving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.”).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiffs allege that Aho formed Monadnock Steel as an alter ego in order to avoid the contributions under the Iron-CBA. Monadnock Steel, they allege, is substantially similar to Monadnock Iron with respect to business purposes, ownership, management, customers, and operations in manner, activity, and geographic area. Defendants contend that Monadnock Steel was formed four years after Monadnock Iron by Aho's son-in-law and that it is not an alter ego. They deny that Aho owns or controls Monadnock Steel. Both sides have submitted warring affidavits. Because there has been no discovery, the Court will address the motion to dismiss, and defer ruling on summary judgment.

         Under the alter ego doctrine, “in certain situations one employer entity will be regarded as a continuation of a predecessor, and the two will be treated interchangeably for purposes of applying labor laws.” NLRB v. Hosp. San Rafael, Inc., 42 F.3d 45, 50 (1st Cir. 1994). The nature of an alter ego claim is that the new or successor company operates as a straw man or as a “disguised continuance” in order to avoid liability. Southport Petroleum Co. v. NLRB, 315 U.S. 100, 106 (1942). Alter ego claims can “prevent the evasion of pension obligations, thereby protecting employee benefits and denying employers an unearned advantage in [their] labor activities.” Groden v. N&D Transp. Co., 866 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2017) (internal citations omitted). Several factors are used to determine whether an alter ego exists including “continuity of ownership, similarity of the two companies in relation to management, business purpose, operation, equipment, customers, supervision, and anti-union animus - i.e., whether the alleged alter ego entity was created and maintained in order to avoid labor obligations.” Id. at 27 (internal citations and quotations omitted). However, “[n]o one factor is controlling, and all need not be present to support a finding of alter ego status.” C.E.K. Indus. Mech. Contractors, Inc. v. NLRB, 921 F.2d 350, 354 (1st Cir. 1990).

         When assessing continuity of ownership, courts consider family relationships between the two companies and who is exerting financial control. See Mass. Carpenters Cent. Collection Agency v. Belmont Concrete Corp., 139 F.3d 304, 309 (1st Cir. 1998) (“Continuity of ownership has been found to exist when the nonsignatory and signatory companies are owned by members of the same family . . . . This [is] especially telling when the named owners of the nonsignatory have little ...


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