In Ford v. Pension Hospitalization & Benefit Plan of the Elec. Indus. Pension Tr. Fund Plan & Joint Indus. Bd. of the Elec. Indus., No. 21-3142, 2023 WL 2230280 (2d Cir. Feb. 27, 2023), the Second Circuit affirmed a denial of disability pension benefits by the Pension Trust Fund of the Pension, Hospitalization and Benefit Plan of the Electrical Industry, administered by the Joint Industry Board of the Electrical Industry (the “Defendants”). In September 2002, Plaintiff-Appellant Bernard Ford asked Defendants about his eligibility for a disability pension. However, he continued to do some intermittent work for different employers in the electricity industry from September 2004 through August 2006. Ford applied for a disability pension in 2009 and the Plan’s Pension Committee awarded him benefits starting October 1, 2006. Ford appealed this decision, seeking a disability date of December 1, 2002. Defendants denied his appeal on the basis that he was actively engaged in covered employment and/or available for employment from 2003 to 2006. He also earned pension credits for that time period. Ford then filed suit for benefits under ERISA. The district court granted summary judgment to Defendants. Ford appealed.
The Second Circuit first determined that the Plan grants discretionary authority to the administrator so the court reviews Defendants’ decision for abuse of discretion. The court concluded that the denial of benefits through October 2006 was not arbitrary or capricious based on the language of the Plan. Section 3.05(a) of the Plan requires that a participant be “permanently incapacitated or disabled to such an extent that he can no longer secure gainful employment in the electrical industry, or any other line of business.” The parties dispute the definition of “gainful employment,” which is not defined in the Plan. Ford argued that his disability kept him from being able to keep a job for any significant period. But, he did not identify any plan language or past practice which supports his interpretation of Section 3.05(a). The Committee had discretionary authority to interpret the term and the interpretation was reasonable. Ford was employed in the electrical industry for periods of time until his last date of employment as of August 18, 2006. Ford also listed this date as his last date of employment on his application. Based on this record, Defendants’ determination was supported by substantial evidence.
Ford also argued that the administrator has a conflict of interest because it both evaluates claims for benefits and pays the claims. The court acknowledged that there is a conflict of interest but declined to assign any weight to this conflict because there was no evidence that the conflict actually affected the administrator’s decision. Judgment affirmed.
*Please note that this blog is a summary of a reported legal decision and does not constitute legal advice. This blog has not been updated to note any subsequent change in status, including whether a decision is reconsidered or vacated. The case above was handled by other law firms, but if you have questions about how the developing law impacts your ERISA benefit claim, the attorneys at Roberts Disability Law, P.C. may be able to advise you so please contact us.
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