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Garcia-Tatupu v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 1, 2017




         Plaintiff, the ex-wife of a deceased professional football player, contends she is entitled to additional benefits on the basis of her Marital Property Agreement as refined by state court orders following her former husband's death. The matter is governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) provisions regarding state court orders concerning benefit plans relating to the provision of property rights to a former spouse. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3). ERISA will not recognize the applicability of such a state court order, and treat it as a “Qualified Domestic Relations Order” for purposes of federal law, if the state order requires the plan to provide increased benefits. Id. at § 1056(d)(3)(D)(ii). The defendant Plan's Retirement Board denied the benefits plaintiff sought for that reason.

         I conclude the state domestic relations order through which plaintiff here seeks enforcement of her divorce decree has the effect of increasing benefits beyond what was contemplated by the plan from which she seeks benefits. Accordingly, I will direct that judgment enter for the defendant.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Linnea Garcia-Tatupu seeks benefits pursuant to a retirement plan belonging to her ex-husband, the late Mosiula F. Tatupu. The Defendant, the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle N.F.L. Player Retirement Plan (“the Plan”), issued decisions written by the Plan's Retirement Board on April 5, 2012; September 19, 2012; and December 20, 2012 denying Ms. Garcia-Tatupu benefits she claimed under the Plan after her ex-husband's death.

         Ms. Garcia-Tatupu and Mosiula Tatupu were married on July 1, 1978. Mosiula Tatupu was employed in the National Football League from 1978 to 1991 and specifically by the New England Patriots football team located in Foxborough, Massachusetts from 1978 to 1990. The couple divorced on September 24, 1997.

         The Marital Separation Agreement between Ms. Garcia-Tatupu and Mosiula Tatupu entered September 24, 1997 sets out the allocation of retirement/pension benefits as follows:

At the time of Mosiula F. Tatupu's retirement and decision to draw pension benefits as may be available to him by virtue of his employment with the National Football League from 1978 through and including 1991, Mosiula F. Tatupu, shall pay to Linnea Garcia-Tatupu one-third (1/3) of the net benefit he receives from said pension benefit plan. Mosiula F. Tatupu shall have exclusive right to decide, if, when, and how he wishes to receive said benefits, having the sole right to choose what payment option he desires without regard to the desires and/or wishes of Linnea Garcia-Tatupu. Whatever payment option Mosiula F. Tatupu elects shall govern the time amount and manner of payments to Linnea Garcia-Tatupu. Mosiula F. Tatupu shall remit the payments due to Linnea Garcia Tatupu within two (2) business days of his receipt of any payments of benefits under said plan. Any and all benefits paid to Linnea Garcia-Tatupu by Mosiula F. Tatupu shall be deemed alimony payments. Said benefits shall continue to be payable to Linnea Garcia-Tatupu subsequent to the death of Mosiula F. Tatupu, if the plan so provides, and if she survives Mosiula F. Tatupu, Linnea Garcia-Tatupu specifically waives any rights to receive any alimony and/or pension benefits in excess of the amount provided herein. The parties agree to cooperate with any plan administrator in coordinating distribution of benefits so long as the distribution is consistent with the terms of this Agreement.

         Mosiula Tatupu died on February 23, 2010 at the age of 54. While he had elected to receive a lump-sum early payment benefit, he had not begun receiving the remainder of his pension benefits at the time of his death. It appears that Mosiula Tatupu provided Ms. Garcia-Tatupu with one-third of the early lump-sum payment he elected.

         On December 29, 2011, Ms. Garcia-Tatupu obtained a post mortem state court domestic relations order, in which the state court awarded her:

100% of the Player's [Mosiula Tatupu's] accrued benefit under the Retirement Plan, based on the Player's Credited Seasons earned as of the date of this order and the terms of the Plan in effect as of the date of this order. The Alternative Payee [Ms. Garcia-Tatupu] will be treated as a participant in the Retirement Plan with respect to this percentage of the Player's accrued benefit, and may elect the form in which benefits will be paid and the time they will commence according to the following rules: The Alternate Payee may elect the life only pension, life and contingent annuitant pension . . . .

         The 2011 post mortem domestic relations order also provided that if “the Alternate Payee is alive upon the Player's death, the Alternate Payee” is “treated as the Player's surviving spouse for the purposes of awarding death benefits with respect to the Player's remaining benefit under the Retirement Plan, ” unless “the Player is married to another person at the time of his death.” The Plan's Retirement Board in its letters of decision dated April 5, 2012 and September 19, 2012, concluded that the 2011 post mortem domestic relations order did not meet the requirements for recognition as a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. The Retirement Board came to this conclusion because while a Qualified Domestic Relations Order may direct the payment to an alternate payee of benefits that are otherwise payable to the participant, such an order may not create an additional benefit and make it payable under the Plan. That, the Retirement Board decided, was what Ms. Garcia-Tatupu's 2011 post mortem domestic relations order did.

         On October 5, 2012, after the first two written denials by the Retirement Board of her claim for benefits, Ms. Garcia-Tatupu obtained another post mortem order stating that the post mortem domestic relations order “entered on December 29, 2011, is hereby ordered nunc pro tunc to September 24, 1997.” September 24, 1997 is the day that the Marital Separation Agreement was signed. By its December 20, 2012 letter of decision, the Retirement Board declined to give force to the 2012 nunc pro tunc order as relevant to the creation of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order.


         Ms. Garcia-Tatupu brought this action on June 16, 2016, claiming that she was wrongfully denied pension benefits. The Plan filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Garcia-Tatupu's claims. I issued an order on April 18, 2017 denying the motion to dismiss. Garcia-Tatupu v. Bert Bell/Peter [sic] Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, 249 F.Supp.3d 570 (D. Mass. 2017). I found I could not properly address the motion because the underlying Marital Separation Agreement was missing from the record. Id. at 582. The lack of that document made it impossible for me to determine whether the Retirement Board had supportably concluded that the 2011 and 2012 post mortem state court domestic relations orders did not constitute Qualified Domestic Relations Orders for purposes of federal law, thereby properly denying Ms. Garcia-Tatupu benefits. As part of renewed motion practice, the parties have made the underlying documentary record before me complete and I am now in a position to decide Ms. Garcia-Tatupu's right to pension benefits on the papers. After analysis of the completed record, I will deny Ms. Garcia-Tatupu's motion to reverse the Plan's determination.


         A decision made by a plan administrator, such as the defendant here, “with the authority and discretion to interpret the plan and to determine eligibility for benefits” must be upheld, unless that decision is “arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.” O'Shea through O'Shea v. UPS Ret. Plan, 837 F.3d 67, 73 (1st Cir. 2016) (quoting Niebauer v. Crane & Co., 783 F.3d 914, 922-23 (1st Cir. 2015)). In order to decide that a plan administrator's decision was not “arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, ” I must find that the plan administrator's decision was “plausible” and “supported by substantial evidence on the record.” Id. Here, however, I primarily examine whether a proffered state domestic relations order is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order recognized by ERISA. Analyzing the requisites of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order is “a question of ...

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