214 F.3d 155 (3rd Cir. 2000), 99-5472, Sted v. Hercules Inc.

Docket Nº:99-5472
Citation:214 F.3d 155
Party Name:SAJID L. SYED, Appellant v. HERCULES INC., a Delaware corporation; HERCULES INCORPORATED INCOME PROTECTION PLAN, an employee welfare benefit plan; HERCULES INCORPORATED, Plan Administrator of Disability Plan
Case Date:May 30, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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214 F.3d 155 (3rd Cir. 2000)

SAJID L. SYED, Appellant

v.

HERCULES INC., a Delaware corporation; HERCULES INCORPORATED INCOME PROTECTION PLAN, an employee welfare benefit plan; HERCULES INCORPORATED, Plan Administrator of Disability Plan

No. 99-5472

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

May 30, 2000

Argued January 11, 2000

ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE, (Dist. Court No. 96-62) District Court Judge: Joseph J. Farnan, Jr., C.J.

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Counsel for Appellant: John M. Stull, Esq. (Argued) 1220 North Market St., Ste. 510 P.O. Box 1947 Wilmington, DE 19899

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Counsel for Appellee: Kevin R. Shannon (Argued) Potter, Anderson & Corroon, LLP 1313 N. Market St. P.O. Box 951 Wilmington, DE 19899

Before: BECKER, Chief Judge, and ALITO and BARRY, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

ALITO, Circuit Judge:

Sajid Syed ("Syed") injured his back in January 1992, while working as a chemical operator for Hercules, Inc. ("Hercules"). Syed brought this action under ERISA S 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. S 1132(a)(1)(B), alleging that Hercules denied him disability benefits owed under the company's employee benefits plan. In addition to damages, Syed requested the imposition of sanctions against Hercules for failure to provide him with the plan document pursuant to a written request, as required by ERISA S 502(c), 29 U.S.C. S 1132(c). He also sought redress for Hercules's failure to give him adequate written notice of the reasons for the denial of his claim, as required by ERISA S 503, 29 U.S.C. S 1133. Syed appeals the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Hercules on all counts. We affirm.

Hercules discharged Syed on March 4, 1992, effective March 31, 1992, as part of a reduction in force. Following his termination, Syed submitted a claim for long-term disability benefits under the Hercules Incorporated Income Protection Plan (the "Plan"). His claim was approved on June 18, 1993, and Syed began receiving benefits retroactive to April 1, 1992.

Benefits are payable under the Plan when a worker becomes totally disabled and remains disabled for six consecutive months.1 See App. at B21. Because Syed was under 62 when he started receiving benefits, he was eligible to receive benefits for as long as he remained totally disabled, up to age 65. See id. at B22. The Plan provides two definitions of total disability, one that applies for the first 24 months after the "elimination period" and another that applies thereafter. The Plan states:

During the elimination period, normally 6 months, and the first 24 months of benefit payments, you are considered totally disabled if you are not able to perform your job. You must not engage in any work for wages or profit during this time.

After receiving 24 monthly payments, you are considered totally disabled for as long as you are not able to engage in any employment for wage or profit for which you are reasonably qualified by training, education, or experience.

App. at B24.

After paying benefits to Syed for almost two years, Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co. ("Provident"), the Claims Fiduciary under the Plan, asked Syed to undergo an independent medical evaluation in February 1994 to determine if he was totally disabled under the latter definition. Dr. Joson, who performed the examination in March 1994, reported that Syed could not do heavy work, but that he could do "sedentary to light" work. App. at A4. Because Syed would no longer qualify for benefits after the 24-month period lapsed, Provident notified Syed that his benefits would be terminated as of March 31, 1994. See id. at A6-7.

Syed appealed the decision to terminate his disability benefits to Provident's ERISA Committee, which upheld its previous decision. See App. at A19-20. Syed renewed his appeal to the ERISA Committee on July 27 and October 28, 1994, each time including updated medical reports. The ERISA Committee sent its final denial of benefits to Syed by letter dated November 9, 1994. On February 24, 1995, Syed requested a copy of the plan document that was effective as of the date he began receiving benefits. Hercules sent

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him a document entitled "Summary Plan Description" (SPD). App. at B15-32.

Syed filed suit on February 6, 1996 -one year and eleven months after the initial denial of benefits on March 31, 1994, and one year and three months after the final letter from Provident dated November 9, 1994. Shortly thereafter, he filed a motion for summary judgment seeking recovery of benefits under ERISA S 502(a)(1)(B), sanctions under S 502(c) for failure to produce the Plan document in response to a written request, and a remedy under S 503 for failure to provide written notice of the reasons for termination of benefits. Hercules made a cross-motion for summary judgment, claiming that Syed owed money for overpayments made under the Plan.

The District Court denied Syed's motion. As the Plan gave the Claims Fiduciary the exclusive discretion to deny claims for benefits, the District Court reviewed Syed's S 502(a)(1)(B) claim under the abuse of discretion standard in accordance with Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989); see also Abnathya v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., 2 F.3d 40, 45 (3d Cir. 1993). After reviewing the medical evidence, the District Court found that there was a genuine issue as to whether Provident acted arbitrarily and capriciously in terminating Syed's medical benefits. Nonetheless, after borrowing Delaware's one-year statute of limitations applicable to claims for "other benefits arising from . . . work, labor or personal services performed," 10 Del. C. S 8111, the Court granted summary judgment for Hercules on this claim.

Next, the Court dismissed Syed's S 502(c) claim. ERISA S 502(c) provides that an administrator must comply with a request for information by a plan participant and imposes personal liability for failure to do so. Syed contended that Hercules improperly sent him the SPD, rather than the Insurance Policy, see App. at B60, in response to his request. However, the Court held that the SPD was the operative plan document for the relevant time period and therefore granted summary judgment in favor of Hercules on this count. Likewise, the Court refused to remand Syed's case to the plan administrator for an out-of-time administrative appeal for the alleged violation of ERISA S 503, because Hercules's March 31 letter adequately set forth the reasons for denying Syed's benefits.

Syed makes four arguments on appeal. First, he contends that his ERISA claim for employee benefits should be governed by Delaware's three-year statute of limitations for contract actions, not the one-year statute for claims arising out of work, labor, or personal services performed. Second, he maintains that Hercules, as Plan Administrator, should be subject to sanctions for failing to provide proper disclosure as required by ERISA S 502(c). Third, Syed argues that Hercules violated ERISA S 503 both by failing to provide specific reasons for the denial of his claim and by neglecting to name any additional material or information that would have helped him perfect his claim. Finally, Syed asserts that the District Court should have exercised plenary review over the Claims Fiduciary's decision to deny his benefits, rather than reviewing for an abuse of discretion, as the Plan did not grant discretion to the Claims Fiduciary to make a disability determination. Because we hold that Delaware's one-year statute of limitations governs this action, we affirm the District Court's grant of summary judgment on Syed's S 502(a)(1)(B) claim without deciding whether Provident's decision to deny Syed's benefits was arbitrary and capricious. We likewise affirm the District Court's dismissal of Syed's claims under ERISA SS 502(c) and 503.

ERISA S 502(a)(1)(B): Statute of Limitations

The chief issue in this appeal concerns the statute of limitations that is applicable to Syed's claim for benefits under

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ERISA S 502(a)(1)(B).2 Unfortunately, ERISA does not provide a statute of limitations for suits brought under S 502(a)(1)(B) to recover benefits, and the new, general federal statute of limitations set out in 28 U.S.C.S 1658 does not apply in this situation.3 Under these circumstances, courts generally turn to the most analogous state statute of limitations. See DelCostello v. International Bhd. of Teamsters, 462 U.S. 151, 158-60 (1983). Although this Circuit has not decided which state statute of limitations is applicable to ERISA S 502(a)(1)(B),4 every other circuit to address the issue has applied the statute of limitations for a state contract action. See Harrison v. Digital Health Plan, 183 F.3d 1235, 1239-40 (11th Cir. 1999); Daill v. Sheet Metal Workers' Local 73 Pension Fund, 100 F.3d 62, 65 (7th Cir. 1996); Adamson v. Armco, 44 F.3d 650, 652 (8th Cir. 1995); Hogan v. Kraft Foods, 969 F.2d 142, 145 (5th Cir. 1992); Meade v. Pension Appeals & Review Comm., 966 F.2d 190, 195 (6th Cir. 1992); Held v. Manufacturers Hanover Leasing Corp., 912 F.2d 1197, 1207 (10th Cir. 1990); Pierce County Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Health Trust v. Elks Lodge, 827 F.2d 1324, 1328 (9th Cir. 1987); Dameron v. Sinai Hosp., 815 F.2d 975, 981 (4th Cir. 1987). Because Delaware, in essence, has two statutes of limitation for contract disputes, however, we must determine which is more appropriate.

Delaware Code S 8106 establishes a three-year statute of limitations for general actions on a promise. See Goldman v. Braunstein's, Inc., 240 A.2d 577, 578 (Del. 1968). Section 8106 provides:

No action to recover damages for trespass, no action to regain possession of personal chattels, . . . no action...

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