Manderson-Saleh v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal.

Citation274 Cal.Rptr.3d 838,60 Cal.App.5th 674
Decision Date05 February 2021
Docket NumberD076652
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Parties Amira Z. MANDERSON-SALEH, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. The REGENTS OF the UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, Defendant and Respondent.

David A. Kay for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton and Joanne Alnajjar Buser for Defendant and Respondent.


Amira Manderson-Saleh is the daughter of an oncology nurse (Mother) who worked at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) for about 12 years until she retired shortly before her death. Mother earned a pension under rules permitting the employee to designate a beneficiary to receive specified monthly pension benefits upon the employee's death.

When Manderson-Saleh claimed her rights as the designated beneficiary shortly after Mother's death, The Regents of the University of California (Regents) denied her claim, finding Mother did not properly identify Manderson-Saleh as the contingent beneficiary before her death. Thus, none of these earned pension benefits were paid, and instead they were retained by the Regents.

Manderson-Saleh filed a complaint against the Regents. In her amended pleading, she alleged breach of contract and alternatively sought a writ of mandate to overturn the Regents' decision. ( Code Civ. Proc., § 1085.)1 The Regents demurred only to the contract claim, and the court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend.

The court then conducted a separate proceeding on the section 1085 mandate petition. After evaluating the parties' written evidence, the court found Manderson-Saleh was not entitled to relief because the Regents had the right to strictly apply its rule that contingent-annuitant pension benefits are conditioned on the Regents receiving a signed beneficiary-election form before the employee's death, and the Regents received this form one week after Mother's death. The court rejected Manderson-Saleh's different interpretation of the rule and her arguments this rule was satisfied by the Regents receiving Mother's election worksheet before her death.

The court entered a final judgment sustaining the demurrer and denying the mandate petition. Manderson-Saleh challenges both rulings.

We determine the court properly sustained the demurrer on the contract claim without leave to amend. But we conclude the court erred in denying the mandate petition. The undisputed evidence establishes Mother substantially complied with the Regents' pension rules and the Regents abused its discretion in failing to consider and apply the substantial compliance doctrine in evaluating Manderson-Saleh's claim. We reverse and remand with directions for the superior court to grant the mandamus petition and to issue a writ ordering the Regents to grant Manderson-Saleh's contingent-annuitant pension claim.


Manderson-Saleh appeals from two separate trial court orders. Because each order requires a different standard for evaluating the record and because the parties dispute the admissibility of portions of the record, we initially describe only those facts that are undisputed for purposes of this appeal. In later sections, we will discuss additional facts relevant in the different procedural contexts and will resolve evidentiary disputes.

A. Summary of Background Facts

In 2004, Mother began working at UCSD as an oncology nurse, and in 2014, she learned she had cancer

but continued working.

On August 25, 2016, after learning her cancer had advanced

and she would die soon, Mother contacted the Regents' retirement administration service center (Service Center) to initiate her retirement under the University of California Retirement Plan (Plan). On this date, Mother (who was not married) gave her young adult daughter, Manderson-Saleh, a signed written notarized power of attorney, which was necessary because Mother was becoming increasingly unable to function because of her advanced cancer. The Regents was aware of Mother's status, and accepted that Manderson-Saleh could act on Mother's behalf pertaining to all future retirement and pension decisions.

About five days later, a Regents retirement representative emailed Mother information about how to request a Personal Retirement profile with a projected retirement-benefits estimate. This email included links to two documents on the Service Center's website: the Regents' Retirement Handbook (Handbook) and the Summary Plan Description for retirement benefits. The Handbook provides detailed information about the retirement process and benefits, including an explanation that after receiving the employee's information, the Service Center will provide a "personalized retirement election form which is the document you will sign to confirm your choices and finalize your decision to retire." The Handbook also states: "If you die before the ... Service Center receives your retirement election form, your retirement election will not be effective and may affect any beneficiary payments."

About two weeks later, on September 11, Mother retired from her UCSD nursing job. The next day, the Service Center emailed Mother a blank Monthly Retirement Income Election Worksheet (Election Worksheet) to permit Mother to indicate how she wanted to receive her pension benefits and to designate a contingent annuitant beneficiary (the person entitled to receive specified portions of Mother's earned pension benefits upon her death). The Service Center had established a secure email with Manderson-Saleh to expedite Mother's elections because it was aware of Mother's impending death and the need to promptly formalize decisions. The Election Worksheet printed form states at the top: "Please return your entire worksheet as soon as possible so we may prepare your election documents for signature."

One or two days later, on about September 13, Manderson-Saleh, on Mother's behalf, faxed the Election Worksheet to the Service Center. This worksheet designated Manderson-Saleh as Mother's contingent annuitant beneficiary and identified Manderson-Saleh's birthdate. The Election Worksheet does not contain a signature line, and it was not signed. At that point, Manderson-Saleh (with the Service Center's knowledge and approval) was filling out the forms for Mother under her power of attorney because Mother's illness had incapacitated her.

A few days later, on Friday September 16, the Service Center (located in Oakland) mailed Mother (who lived in the San Diego area) a final "UBEN 161 Election" form for her to formally approve her final pension election decisions made in the Election Worksheet. The prepared form mailed to Mother contained the information from the Election Worksheet, including the designation of Manderson-Saleh as Mother's contingent beneficiary and Manderson-Saleh's birthdate. The form stated: "In signing and submitting this election document, I acknowledge and understand and agree that: [¶] ... [¶] The election made on this form will not be effective if the form is received by the [Service Center] after the member's death."

It appears Mother may not have received this prepared UBEN 161 Election form before she died on September 20, and neither she nor Manderson-Saleh signed or returned this form before her death.

On the same date it mailed the UBEN 161 Election form, on September 16, the Service Center mailed or emailed a completed Personal Retirement Profile to Mother, which contained a reference to the UBEN 161 Election form and stated that the form must be submitted to finalize pension elections before the member's death.

Six days after Mother's death, on September 26, the Service Center received a faxed UBEN 161 Election form signed by Manderson-Saleh (on behalf of Mother) with a date of September 26.

The next month, on October 12, the Service Center wrote to Manderson-Saleh, acknowledging Mother's September 20 death, and stating that "since [it] received the UBEN 161 after September 20, 2016, we are unable to move forward with your mother's retirement."

Several months later, Manderson-Saleh's then attorney (Joseph Foley) wrote to the Service Center challenging its decision to deny Manderson-Saleh's beneficiary claim. In the letter, Foley claimed that Manderson-Saleh had signed the UBEN 161 Election form on September 16, but had inadvertently misdated it as September 26. Foley also stated:

"Moreover, [Manderson-Saleh], as attorney in fact, was in contact with [the Service Center] on several occasions from September 12, 2016 through September 19, 201[6], both by email and by telephone asking questions about the retirement packet paperwork and advising the ... representative of [Mother's] elections designated in the paperwork. [Manderson-Saleh] was assured on more than one occasion by [Service Center] representatives that [Mother's] elections designated on the paperwork, prior to September 20, 201[6], were sufficient to effectuate her retirement elections.
"It is clear from the background and circumstances of this matter that [Mother] took an active role in completing the ... Retirement Packet prior to her passing thereby memorializing her clear wishes and intent known. [Service Center] representatives were actually contacted by [Manderson-Saleh] as Attorney in Fact for [Mother], expressing [Mother's] wishes regarding her pension benefit elections. [Service Center representatives were] well aware of [Mother's] elections regarding her pension beneficiary prior to September 20, 2016."

Foley requested that the Service Center accept and process Mother's retirement packet designating Manderson-Saleh as the pension beneficiary.

Three months later, the Regents' Plan Administrator denied this request. The denial letter stated in part:

"I have reviewed your appeal of the denial of your request for Contingent Annuitant benefits. [A]fter careful consideration of the facts and circumstances surrounding the communications regarding those benefits, I find no basis for reversing the denial. [¶] ... [

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