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Motes v. Time Warner Cable Pension Plan

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Tyler Division

July 18, 2017

MARY MOTES, Plaintiff,
v.
TIME WARNER CABLE PENSION PLAN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT W. SCHROEDER III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this action, Plaintiff Mary Motes (“Motes”) seeks to obtain pension benefits from Defendant Time Warner Cable Pension Plan (“TWCPP”). The Court held a bench trial in this matter on July 11, 2017. Docket No. 49 (“Tr.”) at 4:1.

         A. Background

         1. Positions of the Parties

         Motes alleges four primary facts. First, Motes alleges that from 1980 to 1986, she was an employee of one or more subsidiaries or affiliates of Group W Cable, Inc. (“Group W” or “Westinghouse”).[1] Second, Motes alleges that during her period of employment at Group W, she became vested in the Group W's pension plan (the “Group W Plan” or “Westinghouse Plan”). Third, she alleges that Paragon Communications (“Paragon”) acquired or merged with Group W such that the obligations of the Group W Plan were absorbed by the Paragon Communications Pension Plan (the “Paragon Plan”). Finally, Motes alleges that Time Warner Cable subsequently acquired Paragon, and the Paragon Plan was absorbed into the TWCPP in 1995.

         TWCPP does not contest that Motes worked at Group W or the duration of Motes's employment at Group W. Nor does TWCPP contest that Motes became fully vested in the Group W Plan, saying only that it lacks the information to determine whether Motes became fully vested in the Group W Plan. TWCPP admits that TWCPP assumed the obligations of the Paragon Plan. TWCPP contests that the Paragon Plan ever took on the pension obligations of the Group W Plan or that Motes otherwise became a Participant in the Paragon Plan. E.g., Tr. at 20:8-14.

         2. Evidence to Be Considered

         The parties agreed at trial that the only proper evidence before the Court is contained within the administrative record of the proceedings before the Claims Committee of the TWCPP. Tr. at 6:23-7:19, 8:15-21; see also Vega v. Nat'l Life Ins. Servs., 188 F.3d 287, 299-300 (5th Cir. 1999) (en banc), abrogated in part on other grounds by Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105 (2008). The Court will refer to the administrative record according to the Bates numbers used therein in its analysis below.

         B. Legal Standards

         A denial of benefits under an ERISA plan is reviewed either de novo or, where the plan delegates discretionary authority to determine benefits eligibility to the plan administrator, for abuse of discretion. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). Generally, a claimant has the burden of proving he is entitled to benefits from an ERISA plan. E.g., Perdue v. Burger King Corp., 7 F.3d 1251, 1254 n.9 (5th Cir. 1993). However, ERISA requires the plan to “maintain records with respect to each of his employees sufficient to determine the benefits due or which may become due to such employees.” 29 U.S.C. § 1059(a)(1). Accordingly, once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of entitlement to benefits, the failure to maintain such records may result in the Court shifting the burden onto the plan to prove that the claimant is not entitled to benefits. See Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680, 687 (1946); Barton v. ADT Sec. Servs. Pension Plan, 820 F.3d 1060, 1066-69 (9th Cir. 2016); Combs v. King, 764 F.2d 818, 825-27 (11th Cir. 1985).

         C. Discussion

         The Paragon Plan and TWCPP both give their administrators discretion to determine benefits eligibility. Admin.Rec000068 at ¶11.4 (TWCPP); Admin.Rec000127 at ¶8.3 (Paragon).[2] Accordingly, the Court reviews the denial of benefits for abuse of discretion. Firestone, 489 U.S. at 115; see also Tr. at 9:14-18.

         The correctness of the denial of benefits in this case turns on whether the Paragon Plan assumed the pension obligations of the Group W Plan. See Tr. at 20:6-10. Whether Motes became vested in the Group W Plan is not contested by TWCPP, which asserts that it does not have sufficient information about the Group W Plan to confirm or refute Motes's claim. See Id. at 17:16-17; 19:8-12. Further, TWCPP admits that it assumed the pension obligations of the Paragon Plan. See e.g., Tr. at 24:21-23. Thus, the primary dispute between the parties is whether the Paragon Plan assumed the pension obligations of the Group W Plan.

         Motes asserts that that the burden of proof with respect to the Paragon Plan assuming the obligations of the Group W Plan should fall on TWCPP under 29 U.S.C. § 1059(a)(1) because Paragon is in a better position than Motes to have maintained records of Paragon's putative acquisition of Group W. See Tr. at 13:13-21. TWCPP asserts that Paragon never acquired Group W or assumed Group W's pension obligations and that shifting the burden to TWCPP to prove that Paragon did not assume the obligations of Group W would be improper. Id. at ...


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