United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division
January 6, 2017
POLLY ROARK, Plaintiff,
UNIVERSAL FIBERS, INC. ASSOCIATES SAVINGS PLAN, Defendant.
Lucas Hobbs and Sheri A. Hiter, Elliott Lawson & Minor,
P.C., Bristol, Virginia, for Plaintiff; W. Bradford Stallard,
Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, Abingdon, Virginia, for
OPINION AND ORDER
P. Jones, United States District Judge
case, governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act
(“ERISA”), presents the question of whether the
death benefit due under a former employee's retirement
plan is payable to the former employee's widow, whom he
married after his employment terminated, or to his parents,
whom he had designated as beneficiaries prior to his marriage
and during his employment. I conclude that the widow, who is
the plaintiff in this action, is entitled to the death
benefit; therefore, I will deny the defendant's Motion
for Judgment on the Pleadings.
connection with the present motion, the basic facts of the
case are not in dispute. Steven Roark was employed by Prisma
Fibers, Inc. (“Prisma”), a predecessor of
Universal Fibers, Inc. (“Universal Fibers”), from
some time before April 1, 1990, until December 4, 1999.
During his employment, Steven participated in the retirement
plan administered by Prisma Fibers, Inc. Associates Savings
Plan. Throughout his employment, he was unmarried.
March 16, 1990, Steven completed a Beneficiary Designation
Form that named his mother as primary beneficiary and his
father as contingent beneficiary of any death benefit payable
under the plan. On May 31, 1995, Steven completed a
Beneficiary Designation Form designating his mother and
father as the primary beneficiaries of his retirement
account, and naming his brother Robbie as contingent
beneficiary. On March 10, 2000, after his employment with
Prisma terminated, Steven married Polly Roark. He did not
submit a designation form naming Polly as the primary
beneficiary of his account or otherwise changing his named
Summary Plan Description says the following regarding payment
of death benefits:
is the beneficiary of my death benefit?
If you are married at the time of your death, your spouse
will be the beneficiary of the entire death benefit unless an
election is made to change the beneficiary. IF YOU WISH TO
DESIGNATE A BENEFICIARY OTHER THAN YOUR SPOUSE, YOUR SPOUSE
MUST IRREVOCABLY CONSENT TO WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO THE PORTION OF
THE DEATH BENEFIT PAYABLE TO YOUR SPOUSE. YOUR SPOUSE'S
CONSENT MUST BE IN WRITING, BE WITNESSED BY A NOTARY OR A
PLAN REPRESENTATIVE, AND ACKNOWLEDGE THE SPECIFIC NON-SPOUSE
If you are married, you have named someone other than your
spouse to be your beneficiary as described in the preceding
paragraph, and you wish to again change your beneficiary
designation, your spouse must again consent to the change,
unless you are changing your designation to name your spouse
as your beneficiary. In addition, you may elect a beneficiary
other than your spouse without your spouse's consent if
your spouse cannot be located.
Compl. Ex. B at 12-13, ECF No. 1-3. The Summary Plan
Description further states, “If you are not married,
you may designate your beneficiary on a form to be supplied
to you by the Administrator.” Id. at 13. In
addition, it reads, “Since your spouse has certain
rights in the death benefit, you should immediately report
any change in your marital status to the
Administrator.” Id. The Summary Plan
Description also states, “If you terminate employment
with us and subsequently die, your beneficiary will be
entitled to the vested percentage of your remaining account
balance at the time of your death.” Id.
did not notify the Plan of his marriage to Polly, and Polly
never submitted a written consent to waive any right she had
to Steven Roark's death benefit.
is now operating as Universal Fibers, and the Prisma Fibers,
Inc. Associates Savings Plan is now operating as the
Universal Fibers, Inc. Associates Savings Plan (hereinafter
died on February 2, 2012. He was married to Polly at the time
of his death, a fact which is indicated on his Certificate of
Death. Following Steven's death, on April 18,
2013, Steven's parents submitted Death Benefit
Distribution Request forms to the Plan. The Plan paid a death
benefit in the amount of $54, 257.90 to Robert and Joan
Roark, Steven's parents. Joan Roark has since died, and
the Plan believes that Robert Roark possesses the distributed
funds and has invested them in a way that renders them
14, 2013, Judy Shumate, a human resources representative with
Universal Fibers, sent a letter to Polly that stated:
To confirm my phone call to you today, as Steven's
surviving spouse, we need to inform you of the rights given
you by a federal law (ERISA). The Employee Retirement Income
Security Act (ERISA) governs 401(k) employee savings plans.
ERISA rules and guidelines require that a surviving spouse
has the primary right to any assets in the account, unless
the spouse has signed a waiver consenting in writing to the
naming of anyone other than the spouse as primary
beneficiary. No such waiver was produced. Accordingly, the
401(k) funds actually belong to you, Steven's spouse.
The company was not aware that Steven had married. He was
single when he resigned from Universal Fibers and had not
updated his beneficiary form. Now that we have knowledge of a
surviving spouse, we are taking action to correct the
inappropriate distribution. Therefore, Universal Fibers is
contacting his designated beneficiaries, Robert L. and Joan
C. Roark, to alert them to this fact and asking that the
death benefit distribution received by them be returned to
the American Funds 401(k) account. The amount distributed was
Once the funds are returned, we will so notify you of your
options regarding a rollover or distribution.
Compl. Ex. C, ECF No. 1-4.
and Joan did not return the distributed funds. On an
unspecified date, Polly submitted a Death Benefit
Distribution Request to the Plan. On October 14, 2016,
counsel for the Plan sent a letter to counsel for Polly,
apparently in response to a threatened lawsuit, indicating
that the June 14, 2013, letter had been sent in error and
explaining the Plan's position that the death benefit had
been properly distributed to the named beneficiaries.
subsequently commenced this action against the Plan seeking
recovery of the death benefit and her attorneys' fees and
costs. The Plan filed an Answer and a Third-Party Complaint
against Robert Roark seeking to recover from him “all
mistakenly paid benefits, ” Third-Party Compl. ¶
16, ECF No. 10, as well as the present Motion for Judgment on
the Pleadings. Robert Roark has not yet filed a response to
the Third-Party Complaint. The Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings has been fully briefed by the Plan and Polly and is
ripe for decision.
12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is considered
under the same standard as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss
for failure to state a claim. Occupy Columbia v.
Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 115 (4th Cir. 2013). Such a motion
“does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the
merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”
Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th
Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
In evaluating a pleading, the court must accept as true all
well-pleaded facts and construe those facts in the light most
favorable to the pleader. Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem'l
Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009). A Rule 12(c)
motion should not be granted “unless the movant clearly
establishes that no material issue of fact remains to be
resolved and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Quality Props. Asset Mgmt. Co. v. Trump Va.
Acquisitions, LLC, No. 3:11-CV-00053, 2012 WL 3542527,
at *2 (W.D. Va. Aug. 16, 2012) (citation omitted). “A
fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit
under the governing law.” Vannoy v. Fed. Reserve
Bank of Richmond, 827 F.3d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 2016)
Plan is an “employee pension benefit plan” as
defined by ERISA. 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A). “The
award of benefits under an ERISA plan is determined in the
first instance by the language of the plan itself.”
S.S. Trade Ass'n Int'l Longshoremen's
Ass'n, (AFL-CIO) Benefits Trust Fund, (AFL-CIO) v.
Bowman, 247 F.3d 181, 183 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted). “Congress
identified the need to follow plan documents as a core
principle of [ERISA].” Boyd v. Metro. Life Ins.
Co., 636 F.3d 138, 140 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing S. Rep.
No. 93-127, at 30 (1974), reprinted in 1974
U.S.C.C.A.N. 4838, 4866) (internal quotation marks and
alteration omitted). The so-called plan documents rule
requires that “plan administrators look solely at
‘the directives of the plan documents' in
determining how to disburse benefits.” Id. at
140 (quoting Kennedy v. Plan Adm'r for DuPont Sav.
& Inv. Plan, 555 U.S. 285, 299-300 (2009)). The
Summary Plan Description is a governing plan document that
controls the payment of benefits. Kennedy, 555 U.S.
at 304; see 29 U.S.C. § 1022. The Supreme Court
has not decided whether beneficiary designation forms are
plan documents, though at least one Court of Appeals has
concluded that they are not. Becker v. Williams, 777
F.3d 1035, 1038-40 (9th Cir. 2015). If the language of a
plan, viewed as a whole and construed in accordance with
common law rules of contract construction, is ambiguous, then
the plan's terms should be construed to align with the
reasonable expectations of the plan participant. Johnson
v. Am. United Life Ins. Co., 716 F.3d 813, 819-20 (4th
Cir. 2013). “If the plan language is unambiguous,
[courts] will not defer to a contrary interpretation by the
plan administrators.” Graef v. Ret. Income Plan for
Emps. of Albemarle Corp., No. 98-1188, 1998 WL 879687,
at *2 (4th Cir. Dec. 17, 1998) (unpublished).
from these general principles of interpretation, ERISA
explicitly sets forth certain protections and requirements
that plans must meet. A covered plan “shall provide
that . . . in the case of a vested participant who dies
before the annuity starting date and who has a surviving
spouse, a qualified preretirement survivor annuity shall be
provided to the surviving spouse of such participant.”
29 U.S.C. § 1055(a). An exception applies where the
“plan provides that the participant's
nonforfeitable accrued benefit . . . is payable in full, on
the death of the participant, to the participant's
surviving spouse.” 29 U.S.C. § 1055(b)(1)(C)(i).
ERISA requires that retirement plan benefits be paid to a
surviving spouse, absent an effective election by the plan
participant. 29 U.S.C. § 1055(c)(1)(A)(i). A
participant's election to pay benefits to someone other
than his surviving spouse is effective only if:
(i) the spouse of the participant consents in writing to such
election, (ii) such election designates a beneficiary (or a
form of benefits) which may not be changed without spousal
consent (or the consent of the spouse expressly permits
designations by the participant without any requirement of
further consent by the spouse), and (iii) the spouse's
consent acknowledges the effect of such election and is
witnessed by a plan representative or a notary public.
29 U.S.C. § 1055(c)(2)(A).
surviving spouse provisions are “part of the
statute's mandatory participation and vesting
requirements.” Boggs v. Boggs, 520 U.S. 833,
841 (1997). The spousal protections contained in §
1055(c) “were intended to ensure a stream of income to
surviving spouses” and these “formalities must,
therefore, be strictly enforced.” Hagwood v.
Newton, 282 F.3d 285, 290 (4th Cir. 2002) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted). The spousal annuity is
“[t]he crown jewel of ERISA's spousal protection,
” and “[w]ithout the spouse's written consent
expressly acknowledging the effect of the waiver or new
beneficiary designation, a participant can neither waive nor
alter the survivor annuity in any way.” VanderKam
v. VanderKam, 776 F.3d 883, 886 (D.C. Cir. 2015).
MidAmerican Pension & Employee Benefits Plans
Administrative Committee v. Cox, 720 F.3d 715, 716 (8th
Cir. 2013), a plan participant designated his parents as
beneficiaries at a time when he was unmarried. He later
remarried his ex-wife, and they executed an antenuptial
agreement purporting to waive any interest in the other
spouse's retirement plans in the event of divorce. In the
antenuptial agreement, each spouse agreed to consent in
writing to a waiver of benefits as required by ERISA.
Id. at 717. The couple subsequently separated and
began divorce proceedings; however, the husband died before
the divorce was finalized. Id. His wife refused to
sign a waiver as required by the antenuptial agreement, and
the plan administrator filed an interpleader action to
determine whether the wife or the parents were entitled to
the retirement plan funds. Id. at 718. The district
court entered summary judgment in favor of the widow, and the
court of appeals affirmed. Id. at 720. The court
concluded that the antenuptial agreement did not conform to
the statutory consent requirements, which must be strictly
applied, and therefore the participant's
“designation of his [p]arents as beneficiaries . . .
must yield to [the widow's] rights as surviving
case, Robert Roark is not entitled to the death benefit under
either the plan documents rule or the plan statutory
language. The Summary Plan Description clearly and
unambiguously states, “If you are married at the time
of your death, your spouse will be the beneficiary of the
entire death benefit unless an election is made to change the
beneficiary.” Compl. Ex. B at 12, ECF No. 1-3. Both the
Summary Plan Description and § 1055(c) detail the
procedure for making an effective election. The Plan does not
dispute the fact that no compliant election was ever made.
Therefore, based on the pleadings now before the court, it
appears that Polly, the surviving spouse, is entitled to the
death benefit and accordingly the Plan is not entitled to
judgment on the pleadings.
foregoing reasons, it is ORDERED that the Plan's Motion
for Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 7) is DENIED.
 It is unclear from the pleadings
whether the Plan requested, received, or reviewed a copy of
the Certificate of Death before paying the death benefit to
Robert and Joan Roark.
 Roark's responsive pleadings to
the Third-Party Complaint were apparently due December 22,
2016, but none have been filed nor has Roark otherwise
entered a defense. At the request of the Plan, the court
extended the time for Roark to answer to January 27, 2017.
Order, Dec. 29, 2016, ECF No. 21.
 I will dispense with oral argument
because the facts and legal contentions are adequately
presented in the materials before the court, and argument
would not significantly aid the decisional process.