187 F.3d 636 (6th Cir. 1999), 98-1319, Knickerbocker v. Ovako-Ajax, Inc.

Docket Nº:98-1319.
Citation:187 F.3d 636
Party Name:Joe KNICKERBOCKER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. OVAKO-AJAX, INC., Ajax Associated Companies, Inc. Retirement Income Plan for Non-Union Employees, and Jonathan Lucas, Plan Administrator, Defendant-Appellees.
Case Date:July 20, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Page 636

187 F.3d 636 (6th Cir. 1999)

Joe KNICKERBOCKER, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

OVAKO-AJAX, INC., Ajax Associated Companies, Inc. Retirement Income Plan for Non-Union Employees, and Jonathan Lucas, Plan Administrator, Defendant-Appellees.

No. 98-1319.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

July 20, 1999

Editorial Note:

This opinion appears in the Federal reporter in a table titled "Table of Decisions Without Reported Opinions". (See FI CTA6 Rule 28 and FI CTA6 IOP 206 regarding use of unpublished opinions)

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Before WELLFORD, SUHRHEINRICH, and MOORE, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

In the district court, Joe Knickerbocker challenged his employer's refusal to award him "dual" pension benefits, which were promised to him but which are not provided by the terms of the benefits plans in which he participated. The parties having resolved the pension issues during the pendency of this appeal, we focus on Knickerbocker's additional claim for medical benefits and his request for statutory penalties based on the plan administrator's failure to disclose information that Knickerbocker requested. The court AFFIRMS the district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants. We REMAND this case to the district court for consideration of Knickerbocker's request for an award of attorney fees

I. BACKGROUND

Knickerbocker's attorney informed us at oral argument that he is no longer pressing any claims pertaining to Knickerbocker's pension benefits, leaving only the claims related to medical benefits. However, Knickerbocker has requested attorney fees, and the resolution of the pension issues is relevant to whether he is the prevailing party. We therefore provide a relatively detailed summary of the original issues in the case.

Knickerbocker began working at the Ajax Rolled Ring Company in 1971 as an hourly employee under a union contract. In 1981, he was asked to move from an hourly position to a salaried one, without any increase in salary. Knickerbocker discussed the terms of this offer with Jim Valrance, president and majority stockholder of Ajax. He was concerned about his pension benefits and about what would happen if he ever became unable to work due to a disability. Valrance amehorated Knickerbocker's concerns by offering him "dual" pension benefits. At the time, Ajax had a benefits plan for hourly employees and was in the process of establishing one for salaried employees. Valrance stated that Knickerbocker's pension under the Salaried Plan would be calculated using his entire length of service with the company but that Knickerbocker would nonetheless receive an additional pension under the Hourly Plan. Valrance also told Knickerbocker that his health benefits would continue for life if he took disability retirement. In 1989, when Ajax was sold and became Ovako-Ajax, Knickerbocker confirmed Valrance's promises with the new management.

Valrance's promises were not consistent with the terms of the Salaried Plan, which went into effect shortly after Knickerbocker accepted his new position. Under the plan, Knickerbocker was entitled to pension benefits based only on his length of service as a salaried employee. Similarly, he was entitled to benefits under the Hourly Plan based on his length of service as an hourly employee. In addition, the Salaried Plan does not provide health benefits to employees who retire before the age of 62, even due to disability. 1 Both plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA").

Knickerbocker stayed with the company until June 6, 1991, when he was forced home by a back injury he had received at work the month before. Ovako filed a worker's compensation claim on his behalf and shortly thereafter laid him off.

When Knickerbocker tried to apply for pension benefits, the plan administrator, Jonathan Lucas, sent him a statement indicating that he was not entitled to a disability pension because he was not an active employee but had been laid off. Lucas failed to respond to Knickerbocker's request for copies of the Salaried Plan and related documents until Knickerbocker's attorney renewed the request for a copy of the plan. In May 1995, an attorney for the plan advised Knickerbocker's attorney that the denial of benefits could be appealed to the company's Retirement Committee. In December 1995, after the Committee had failed to act on the appeal for several months, Knickerbocker filed this lawsuit.

In January 1997, the district court stayed the suit to await the Retirement Committee's decision, which was issued in March of that year. The Committee awarded Knickerbocker pension benefits that are greater than required under the terms of the plans but less than Valrance promised. 2 However, Knickerbocker cannot receive any payments from the Salaried Plan until he has exhausted his eligibility for long-term disability ("LTD") benefits through Ovako's disability insurance program Thus, for the time being, Knickerbocker can receive only his hourly pension.

Knickerbocker's pensions are also subject to offsets for worker's compensation benefits, which Knickerbocker received until accepting a final settlement in July 1994, about a year before he applied for his pensions. After the Committee's 1997 decision, Ovako continued to refuse to pay Knickerbocker's hourly pension, apparently on the basis of the worker's compensation-offset rule. In a letter dated December 30, 1998 - twenty-one months after the Committee's award and ten weeks before the oral argument in this case - Ovako acknowledged that none of Knickerbocker's worker's compensation benefits were properly offset against his hourly pension. The letter indicated that Ovako would pay that pension retroactive to June 1995.

In July 1997, after the close of discovery in this case, Ovako's attorney wrote to Knickerbocker's He stated that the plan documents Ovako had sent to Knickerbocker in response to his 1994 and 1995 requests were outdated (and were so at the time they were sent). The attorney enclosed updated copies. Also in 1997, Ovako's attorney at last sent Knickerbocker copies of the plan's IRS Forms 5500 (Annual Return/Report of an Employee Benefit Plan) for 1989 through 1992. This disclosure appears to have satisfied Knickerbocker's 1994 request for "documents filed within the last four years." 3 However, Knickerbocker...

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