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Date: 02-22-2023

Case Style:

Roberta Stepp Garrison v. The Administrative Committee of Delta Air Lines, Inc.

Case Number: 1:20-cv-01921

Judge: Nina Y. Wang

Court: United States District Court for the District of Colorado (Denver County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:

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Defendant's Attorney: Heather Fox Vickles and John Timothy McDonald

Description: Denver, Colorado employment benefits law lawyers represented Plaintiff who sued Defendant on an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) violation theory.

Federal Courthouse - Denver, Colorado

Federal Courthouse - Denver, Colorado

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Plaintiff Roberta Stepp Garrison initiated this civil action on July 1, 2020, challenging the denial of benefits she alleges were owed to her under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). See [Doc. 1]. Ms. Garrison filed a First Amended Complaint (the “Amended Complaint”) on August 12, 2020. [Doc. 7]. She names three Defendants in this action: the Administrative Committee of Delta Air Lines, Inc. the Delta Family-Care Disability and Survivorship Plan (the “Plan”), and Delta Air Lines, Inc.

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Ms. Garrison's late husband, Richard Stepp, worked for Delta from 1969 until his retirement in 2005. [Doc. 21-1 at 3]. Delta, through the Plan, provides disability and survivor benefits to those who participate in the Plan and their beneficiaries. See generally [Doc. 21-2]. The Plan offers a Monthly Income Survivor Benefit (the “Survivor Benefit”) which is payable for ten years following the death of a Delta employee or former employee subject to the Plan. The Plan provides that the payment of the Survivor Benefit may be offset by other benefits, including “100% of the available Family Social Security [B]enefit as defined in Section 1.20.” [Doc. 21-2 at 32]. Section 1.20 of the Plan defines “Family Social Security Benefit” as:

the total amount which would be available or the amount actually paid to the Employee's Eligible Family Members, whichever is greater, as a monthly disability, survivorship, or old age benefit, inclusive of benefits for relatives or dependents, under the Federal Social Security Act . . . whether or not payment of such amount is delayed, suspended, or forfeited because of failure to apply, other work, or for any other reason.

[Id. at 8]. Ms. Garrison became eligible to receive the Survivor Benefit upon Mr. Stepp's death in 2013 and began receiving monthly payments.

In February 2017, the Delta Employee Service Center (the “Delta ESC”) informed Ms. Garrison that, as Mr. Stepp's widow, she would be eligible to receive a benefit (the “Widow's Benefit”) from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) upon her 60th birthday. Then, in May 2019, the Delta ESC sent Ms. Garrison a letter stating that after applying Ms. Garrison's offsets, including the Widow's Benefit, to her monthly Survivor Benefit, “there is currently no benefit due from the [Plan] effective July 1, 2019.”

However, Ms. Garrison remarried on April 21, 2018, at the age of 58. In May 2019, the SSA sent Ms. Garrison a letter informing her that, because she had remarried prior to the age of 60, she was not entitled to receive the Widow's Benefit. Ms. Garrison submitted correspondence from the SSA to the Delta ESC to demonstrate that she was “not entitled to [the Widow's Benefit] because [she is] remarried” and to show that she is thus “entitled to benefits from Delta Family-Care Disability Survivorship Trust” despite her remarriage.

Ms. Garrison appealed the termination of benefits to the Administrative Subcommittee, which affirmed the denial of benefits, concluding that because Ms. Garrison “became eligible for [the Widow's Benefit]” upon her 60th birthday, such amount would offset her Survivor Benefit regardless of whether she actually received the Widow's Benefit. [Id. at 26]. Ms. Garrison appealed the Subcommittee's decision to the Committee, which upheld the denial of benefits, stating, inter alia, that Ms. Garrison had “forfeited [the Widow's Benefit] due to [her] remarriage prior to age 60.” [Id. at 4]. And because the Widow's Benefit offset was to be applied regardless of whether Ms. Garrison actually received the Widow's Benefit, the Committee informed Ms. Garrison that she was not entitled to benefits under the Plan. [Id. at 4].

Plaintiff then initiated this action, asserting four claims: (1) the wrongful denial of benefits against all Defendants (Claim One); (2) breach of fiduciary duty against the Committee (Claim Two); (3) breach of co-fiduciary duty against Delta (Claim Three); and (4) breach of fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction against the Committee and Delta (Claim Four). This Court entered the Parties' agreed Scheduling Order on September 3, 2020, wherein the Parties agreed that Plaintiff would file an opening brief on the merits and that, after full briefing, the Parties would file a joint motion for determination. [Doc. 17 at 3]. After a limited discovery period, see [id. at 2, 3], Ms. Garrison filed “Plaintiff's Amended Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Her First Claim for Relief and Memorandum Brief in Support” (the “First Motion for Summary Judgment”). [Doc. 27]. In the First Motion for Summary Judgment, Ms. Garrison sought judgment in her favor only on Claim One and did not substantively address any of her other claims. See generally [id.].

Prior to ruling on the First Motion for Summary Judgment, this Court held a Status Conference on August 26, 2021 to discuss the procedural posture of this case. [Doc. 35]. Specifically, the Court asked the Parties to address their respective positions as to what would happen to Claims Two through Four after a ruling on Claim One. Plaintiff's counsel stated:

I think if there was a holding in favor of the plaintiff on Claim [One], I don't believe there would be a need to pursue the remaining claims. As far as the other outcome, if there was a denial and Claim [One] was not granted and was dismissed, I still believe there [are] potential grounds for [Claims Two through Four]. I don't know if my client would want to pursue that.

[Doc. 36 at 3:22-4:5]. Plaintiff's counsel conceded that if summary judgment were granted in favor of Defendants on Claim One, additional briefing would be needed if Plaintiff wished to pursue her remaining claims. [Id. at 4:6-17]. Defense counsel stated that it was Defendants' position that Claims Two, Three, and Four “are not available [to Plaintiff], because [P]laintiff has a viable claim [with respect to Claim One] under the benefit provision of Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA.”

On January 6, 2022, this Court denied Plaintiff's First Motion for Summary Judgment on Claim One. See [Doc. 38 at 30]. The Court found the language of the Plan terms ambiguous, see [Id. at 20], but ultimately concluded that the Committee's interpretation of this ambiguous language was reasonable, and thus, its interpretation was not arbitrary or capricious. [Id. at 2427]. In that same Order, the Court ordered Plaintiff to show cause why her remaining fiduciary duty claims are not duplicative of Claim One and why she should be permitted to proceed on those claims. [Id. at 29-30]. After two requested extensions of time, see [Doc. 39; Doc. 41], Plaintiff responded to the Order to Show Cause on February 18, 2022, [Doc. 44],[2] and Defendants replied on March 10, 2022. [Doc. 45]. Thereafter, the Court concluded that it could not adequately determine on that briefing whether Plaintiff's remaining claims are duplicative of Claim One. [Doc. 46 at 1]. The Court ordered that “to the extent that Defendants believe that the remaining claims are duplicative and/or moot, and to the extent Plaintiff believes that remand is warranted,” the Parties would be granted leave to file additional cross-motions for summary judgment on or before May 31, 2022. [Id.]. These Motions have been filed and are fully briefed.

Outcome: Defendant's motion for summary judgment granted.

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