155 F.3d 206 (3rd Cir. 1998), 97-1856, Teamsters Pension Trust Fund of Philadelphia & Vicinity v. Littlejohn

Docket Nº:97-1856.
Citation:155 F.3d 206
Party Name:TEAMSTERS PENSION TRUST FUND OF PHILADELPHIA & VICINITY; William J. Einhorn v. Silas LITTLEJOHN; Teamsters Local Union No. 115, Appellant.
Case Date:August 26, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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Page 206

155 F.3d 206 (3rd Cir. 1998)

TEAMSTERS PENSION TRUST FUND OF PHILADELPHIA & VICINITY;

William J. Einhorn

v.

Silas LITTLEJOHN; Teamsters Local Union No. 115, Appellant.

No. 97-1856.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

August 26, 1998

Argued July 20, 1998.

Page 207

Walter H. DeTreux, III (argued), Philadelphia, PA, for Appellant.

Frank C. Sabatino (argued), Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellees.

Coram: STAPLETON, ROSENN, Circuit Judges and RESTANI, Court of International Trade. [*]

OPINION OF THE COURT

ROSENN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal presents an unusual question pertaining to the liability of a surviving unincorporated local union after merger with it by another unincorporated local union for a debt of the latter. The district court held that pre-merger notice of the debt owed by the non-surviving local was not required and that the surviving local union was liable for the debt. The surviving local timely appealed. We affirm.

I.

The facts of this case are undisputed. Teamsters Local 513 was a labor union which represented certain employees in the Philadelphia metropolitan area for purposes of collective bargaining. In September 1991, the members of Local 513 voted to merge into another local union, Teamsters Local Union No. 115. The merger became effective in early February 1992. Both of the local unions were unincorporated associations. On June 12, 1978, Silas Littlejohn began working for Local Union No. 513 as an office employee. He left this job in early February 1992.

As an employee of Local 513, Littlejohn was covered by the Teamsters Pension Trust Fund of Philadelphia & Vicinity (the "Pension Fund"), the Plaintiff/Appellee. All participating local unions were required to make contributions to the Pension Fund on behalf of their own employees. In spite of this obligation, Local 513 did not make any contributions to the Pension Fund on Littlejohn's behalf. On December 7, 1992, Littlejohn applied for and was denied a pension by the Pension Fund because it had not received any contributions in his behalf. Littlejohn appealed the Fund's decision. The Fund held a hearing, but did not render a decision on the appeal. Having never received contributions on Littlejohn's behalf, the Pension Fund requested past contributions from Local 115. Local 115 denied liability for Local 513's failure to pay the pension contributions. Local 115 took the position that it had never employed Littlejohn, had no knowledge of Local 513's failure to make the pension contributions, and, therefore, Local 115 should not be liable for the contributions that Local 513 was required to make to the Pension Fund.

Instead of rendering a decision on Littlejohn's appeal, in December 1995, the Pension Fund and the Fund's administrator, William Einhorn, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Local 115 and Littlejohn. In its complaint, the Pension Fund sought a declaration either that Littlejohn did not participate in the pension plan and, thus, was not eligible for pension benefits, or that Local 115 was responsible for delinquent contributions that should have been paid to the Pension Fund on Littlejohn's behalf by Local 513. The Pension Fund also requested, contingent on a finding that Local 115 was responsible for the delinquent contributions, a determination that Local 115 was liable for interest, attorneys' fees, liquidated damages, and costs.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the Pension Fund's motion finding that Littlejohn was entitled to pension benefits and that Local 115 was required to pay the contributions

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to the Pension Fund that were improperly unpaid by Local 513.

II.

The Pension Fund is governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461. ERISA covers the Fund because it is a private pension Fund established by both employers engaged in commerce and employee organizations representing employees engaged in commerce. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 1002(2)(A)(I), 1003(a)(3). Pursuant to ERISA, a claim like the one in this case--essentially to recover employer contributions owed to an employee pension plan--must be brought in a federal district court. See 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1); Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 54, 107 S.Ct. 1549, 95 L.Ed.2d 39 (1987). Hence, the district court had subject-matter jurisdiction of the Fund's lawsuit pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331. In light of this independent basis for federal jurisdiction, the Pension Fund's invocation of the Declaratory Judgment Act, see 28 U.S.C. § 2201, is proper. See Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671, 70 S.Ct. 876, 94 L.Ed. 1194 (1950); Terra Nova Ins. Co., Ltd. v. 900 Bar, Inc., 887 F.2d 1213, 1217 n. 2 (3d Cir.1989).

This court has appellate jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, because the district court entered final judgment against Local 115. We exercise plenary review of the district court's resolution of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See Fornarotto v. American Waterworks Co., Inc., 144 F.3d 276, 278 n. 3 (3d Cir.1998).

III.

Local 115 argues that it is not liable for the unpaid pension contributions because it did not have notice of the existence of the delinquency at the time that it merged with Local 513. Local 115 relies primarily on Golden State Bottling Co., Inc. v. National Labor Rel. Bd., 414 U.S. 168, 94 S.Ct. 414, 38 L.Ed.2d 388 (1973), which stands for the proposition that a purchaser of a business, which continues the operations of that business with notice that the predecessor has committed an unfair labor practice, is liable for the damages caused by the unfair labor practice. See also Upholsterers' Union Pension Fund v. Artistic Furniture of Pontiac, 920 F.2d 1323, 1329 (7th Cir.1990). The Pension Fund counters that, under well-settled and long-standing principles of corporate liability, the surviving entity of a merger is liable for all of the debts of the predecessor entity regardless of whether the survivor had pre-merger notice of the debt. See John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston, 376 U.S. 543, 550 n. 3, 84 S.Ct. 909, 11 L.Ed.2d 898 (1964); 15 William M. Fletcher et al., Fletcher Cyclopedia of the Law of Private Corporations § 7121, at 226-27 (rev. ed.1990).

It is well established that ERISA displaces all state law purporting to relate to private pension plans. See McGurl v. Trucking Employees Welfare Fund, 124 F.3d 471, 476 (3d Cir.1997). The statute, however, does not address many of the issues which arise in the normal course of the administration of such plans. Relevant to this case, it does not set forth principles governing successor liability. In a situation where the...

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