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Sedlack v. Braswell Services Group

January 12, 1998

ROBERT E. SEDLACK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

BRASWELL SERVICES GROUP, INCORPORATED, A/K/A BRASWELL GROUP INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.

ROBERT E. SEDLACK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

BRASWELL SERVICES GROUP, INCORPORATED, A/K/A BRASWELL GROUP INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Charleston.

David C. Norton, District Judge. (CA-95-674-2-18)

Before WIDENER and ERVIN, Circuit Judges, and PHILLIPS, Senior Circuit Judge.

PHILLIPS, Senior Circuit Judge

Argued: October 29, 1997

Affirmed by published opinion. Senior Judge Phillips wrote the opinion, in which Judge Widener and Judge Ervin joined.

OPINION

This case arose out of Braswell Group's ("Braswell") handling and denial of Robert E. Sedlack's claims for benefits under an ERISA employee benefit plan sponsored and administered by Braswell ("the Plan"). Sedlack, a former Braswell employee, sued Braswell alleging wrongful denial of benefits, breach of fiduciary duty, failure to provide requested Plan information, and unreasonable claims practices. After a bench trial, the district court found for Braswell on all claims except Sedlack's claim for failure to provide requested Plan information, as to which the court found Braswell liable and awarded a statutory penalty. The court then denied Sedlack's motion for attorney's fees. Sedlack appealed, Braswell cross-appealed and we affirm on both the appeal and the cross-appeal.

I.

The case originated in Sedlack's allegations of an injury he claimed to have sustained on April 16, 1991, from a slip and fall on a set of stairs on the vessel SNELL where he was working for Braswell. Claiming injury from the incident, Sedlack filed for benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act ("LHWCA"). When Braswell disputed Sedlack's version of the incident, the claim was presented for decision to an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Among the issues before the ALJ was "[whether] an injury occurred on April 16, 199[1]." On directly conflicting evidence as to whether any slip and fall injury occurred as claimed by Sedlack, the ALJ denied benefits, finding "that the alleged accident did not occur as stated by [Sedlack]."

On September 15, 1994, Sedlack's attorney requested a copy of the Plan from Braswell. A copy was only provided on February 29, 1996. In the meantime, Sedlack had filed with Braswell a claim for benefits under the Plan based upon the injury allegedly sustained in the April 16, 1991 accident. Braswell administratively denied the claim, relying on Sedlack's assertion that the accident was work-related and the Plan's exclusion of benefits for work-related claims. Sedlack then brought this ERISA action under 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 1132 claiming that Braswell had (1) wrongfully denied his claims; (2) breached its fiduciary duty to Sedlack; (3) failed to comply with Sedlack's request for a copy of the Plan ("Section(s) 1132(c) claim"); and (4) engaged in unreasonable claims practices. The action was tried to the district court without a jury and the district court found against Sedlack on all claims except the Section(s) 1132(c) claim; on that claim, the trial court ordered Braswell to pay penalties of $20 per day for the 531 days between September 15, 1994 (when Sedlack requested the Plan) and February 29, 1996 (when Braswell made the Plan available). Following entry of judgment, the district court denied Braswell's motion for reconsideration and Sedlack's motion for attorney's fees.

Sedlack then appealed from those portions of the judgment that rejected his wrongful denial of benefits, breach of fiduciary duty and unreasonable practices claims and that denied his motion for attorney's fees. Braswell cross-appealed from the portion of the judgment allowing the Section(s) 1132(c) claim and imposing the penalty as remedy.

II.

We review the district court's conclusions of law de novo, its factual findings under the clearly erroneous standard, and its imposition of penalties and refusal to award attorney's fees for abuse of discretion. See West v. Clarke Murphy, Jr. Self Employed Pension Plan, 99 F.3d 166, 167 (4th Cir. 1996); Glocker v. W.R. Grace & Co., 974 F.2d 540, 544 (4th Cir. 1992) ...


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