Deschamps v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc., 091216 FED6, 15-6112

Docket Nº:15-6112
Opinion Judge:JULIA SMITH GIBBONS, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Andre Deschamps, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc. Salaried Employees Retirement Plan; Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc.; Bridgestone Americas, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.
Attorney:John E. B. Gerth, WALLER LANSDEN DORTCH & DAVIS, LLP, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants. Karla M Campbell, BRANSTETTER, STRANCH & JENNINGS, PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee. John E. B. Gerth, Robert E. Boston, WALLER LANSDEN DORTCH & DAVIS, LLP, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants. Ka...
Judge Panel:Before: SILER, GIBBONS, and COOK; Circuit Judges.
Case Date:September 12, 2016
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Andre Deschamps, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Bridgestone Americas, Inc. Salaried Employees Retirement Plan; Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc.; Bridgestone Americas, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.

No. 15-6112

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 12, 2016[*]

Argued: July 28, 2016

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville. No. 3:12-cv-00086-Kevin H. Sharp, Chief District Judge.

ARGUED:

John E. B. Gerth, WALLER LANSDEN DORTCH & DAVIS, LLP, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants.

Karla M Campbell, BRANSTETTER, STRANCH & JENNINGS, PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

John E. B. Gerth, Robert E. Boston, WALLER LANSDEN DORTCH & DAVIS, LLP, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants.

Karla M Campbell, R. Jan Jennings, BRANSTETTER, STRANCH & JENNINGS, PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before: SILER, GIBBONS, and COOK; Circuit Judges.

OPINION

JULIA SMITH GIBBONS, Circuit Judge.

After working for ten years at a Bridgestone plant in Canada, Andre Deschamps transferred to a Bridgestone facility in the United States. Prior to accepting this position he expressed concern about losing pension credit for his ten years of employment in Canada. But upon receiving assurances from members of Bridgestone's management team that he would keep his ten years of pension credit, Deschamps accepted the position. For over a decade, Deschamps received various written materials confirming that his date of service for pension purposes would be August 8, 1983. He even turned down employment opportunities from a competitor at a higher salary because of the purportedly higher pension benefits he would receive at Bridgestone. In 2010, Deschamps discovered that Bridgestone had changed his service date to August 1, 1993, the date he began working at the American plant. After failed attempts to appeal this change through Bridgestone's internal procedures, Deschamps brought a suit against Bridgestone alleging claims of equitable estoppel, breach of fiduciary duty, and an anti-cutback violation of ERISA.[1] The district court granted summary judgment for Deschamps on these three claims. For the following reasons, we affirm the district court's judgment.

I.

On August 8, 1983, Deschamps began working for Firestone2 in Canada as a maintenance manager. In late 1992, Deschamps's plant manager made him aware of a job opportunity at one of Bridgestone's plants in Wilson, North Carolina. In early 1993, Deschamps began discussing the prospect of employment at the Wilson plant with George Ruccio, 3 the plant manager. Feeling it was in his best interest to negotiate his benefits during the hiring process, Deschamps recalled discussing with Ruccio his pension benefits. Specifically, he communicated to his interviewers his concern that his service date for those benefits would be set as August 8, 1983, his start date at the Canadian facility, so he would not lose his pension credit for his ten years of work there. As his pension benefits were a "driving force" in his decision to transfer from Canada, Deschamps raised the issue at his interview, which included Ruccio, Charles Russell, human resources manager, Thomas Berg, director of manufacturing, and Wayne Hunter, plant controller. Deschamps Dep. 35:12-20, ECF No. 32-1. Deschamps had "full confidence" that these people would give him accurate information about his benefits. Id. at 38:3-20. A few weeks later, Deschamps testified, Ruccio contacted him to assure him that he would be given pension credit back to August 8, 1983. However, Deschamps was not given anything in writing regarding his service date until 1994 when he received his first benefit statement.

Russell "clear[ly] recall[ed]" that upon interviewing for the Wilson plant, Deschamps was concerned about his service date. Russell Decl. 1, ECF. No. 40. In response to Deschamps's concerns, Russell reached out to Robert Conger, Bridgestone's pension analyst, whose assistance, Russell testified, was "instrumental" in reaching a decision about Deschamps's pension benefits. Russell Dep. 18:3-15, ECF No. 70-2. Russell testified that after Conger confirmed the terms of Deschamps's employment, including crediting his years of employment in Canada for pension purposes, Russell and Ruccio offered Deschamps a position at the Wilson plant, making "specific representations" that his service date would be August 8, 1983. Russell Decl. 2. Conger, on the other hand, testified that having been retired for sixteen years, he did not recall any specific conversation with Deschamps or anyone else about Deschamps's pension benefits, but that he is "sure [he] did not tell [Deschamps] or anyone else that [Deschamps] would have any pension credit for his employment in Canada" because he was not authorized to do so. Conger Decl. 2, ECF No. 71.

Consistent with Russell's testimony, Hunter testified that Ruccio and Russell contacted Bridgestone's corporate office to ensure that Deschamps would be given pension credit for his time in Canada and that, "[w]hen the corporate office approved of the offer to Mr. Deschamps, including the representation that his pension would be calculated using the 1983 date, this information was passed on to Mr. Deschamps." Hunter Decl. 2, ECF No. 61. Likewise, Berg testified that through his "personal[] involve[ment]" in discussions with Deschamps about the terms of his employment, he knows that Deschamps was offered employment "with one of the conditions being that his employment date" for benefits purposes would be August 8, 1983. Berg Decl. 1-2, ECF 63.

During his employment at the Wilson plant, Continental Tire (Continental), a competitor, twice offered Deschamps a position at its facility, once in 2000 and again in 2003. Continental offered Deschamps a higher salary, but the pension benefits at Bridgestone far exceeded those at Continental, so Deschamps decided to continue his employment with Bridgestone. His decision was based on the assumption that he would receive ten years of service credit for his employment in Canada. Deschamps testified that had he known that he would not receive this credit, he "would have more likely moved to . . . Continental." Deschamps Dep. 95:13-96:2. In 2005, Continental froze its pension plans and subsequently shut down most of its operations in 2006, resulting in mass layoffs.

Through his years of employment at Bridgestone, Deschamps's belief regarding the service date for his pension benefits was confirmed by written materials like benefit summaries and materials made available online. Many of these documents included a disclaimer warning that the document "is only an estimate of your pension benefits" and that "the Pension Plan Documents govern all benefits." Misc. Pension Docs. 1-2, 4, 6-12, 14-15, ECF No. 60-2. In either 2009 or 2010, Bridgestone investigated and corrected errors in the service dates of various employees who had been employed by Bridgestone abroad and later transferred to a facility in the United States. Around August 2010, Deschamps discovered that his service date had changed from 1983 to 1993, causing him not to receive pension credit for his years of employment in Canada.

Deschamps's benefits are governed by the Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. 1984 Retirement Plan (the Plan). One way that an employee commences participation in the Plan is by completing one year of Eligibility Service, provided that the employee "is a Covered Employee on such date." Retirement Plan 20, ECF No. 38-8. According to William Phillips, a member of Bridgestone's pension board, Deschamps's benefits did not begin to accrue until 1993 because it was at that point that he became a covered employee. The Plan defines "covered employee" in terms of five disjunctive classifications. The first two are of particular relevance in this case: (10) Covered Employee: An Employee who is described in paragraph (a) of this Subsection . . . .

(a) An Employee is described in this paragraph if he is:

(i) classified by the Employer as a United States salaried Employee not represented by a designated collective bargaining agent; or

(ii) a foreman, supervisor, plant protection Employee, administrative or clerical Employee or confidential Employee of the Employer, whether or not paid on an hourly basis, who is not represented by a designated collective bargaining agent . . . .

Id. at 2-3. Bridgestone denied Deschamps's appeal to change his service date to 1983, as well as his subsequent appeal of that decision, reasoning both times that he was not a covered employee under subsection (i).

Deschamps then filed a complaint alleging, as relevant here, equitable estoppel pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), breach of fiduciary duty pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1104, and an...

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