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Odle v. UMWA 1974 Pension Plan

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

March 22, 2018

VEDA M. ODLE, Plaintiff,
v.
UMWA 1974 PENSION PLAN, ET AL., Defendants.

          Richard F. Hawkins, III, The Hawkins Law Firm, PC, Richmond, Virginia, for Plaintiff

          John Jessee, Abingdon, Virginia, and Carolyn Dutrow, Associate General Counsel, and Christina B. Porras, Associate Counsel, UMWA Health & Retirement Funds, Washington, D.C., for Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          James P. Jones United States District Judge

         In this action arising under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461, the plaintiff challenges the amount of the survivor's annuity awarded to her under the provisions of the United Mine Workers of America 1974 Pension Plan (“1974 Pension Plan”).[1] The court has subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1).

         The case was referred to the magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The magistrate judge thereafter filed her Report and Recommendation (“Report”) recommending that the case be remanded to the Trustees for further consideration. Both the plaintiff and the Trustees filed timely objections to the Report, which are now before me for de novo determination. After careful consideration of the objections, I will reject the magistrate judge's recommendation and affirm the Trustees' decision.

         I.

         The facts and relevant administrative proceedings are contained in the administrative record provided by the Trustees, which will be cited as “R.”[2]

         The 1974 Pension Plan is an industry-wide defined benefit pension plan for eligible mine workers and their survivors and is governed by ERISA. Benefits under the Plan are based on a mine worker's years of creditable service awarded for classified employment. Foremen and supervisors are not considered as classified employees.

         Plaintiff Veda M. Odle's husband, Raymond L. Odle, Jr., worked in the coal mining industry from approximately 1973 to 2002 in both classified and non-classified positions. After her husband's death in 2010, the Trustees awarded Mrs.

         Odle a Pre-Retirement Survivor's Annuity based on 15.25 years of classified service by Mr. Odle from 1973 through 1988.[3] Mrs. Odle contended that her husband was due additional credit and sought an administrative appeal hearing from the Trustees. She argued that Mr. Odle had classified employment with Dale Coal Company, Inc. (“Dale Coal”) from 1988 through 1994. R. at 24.

         Prior to the appeals hearing, the Trustees' hearing officer conducted a pre-hearing conference with Mrs. Odle, after which Mrs. Odle was sent a written Summary of Pre-Hearing Conference (“Summary”), which set forth the Trustees' reasoning for not awarding credit for 1988 through 1994. The Summary showed that Mr. Odle had worked in a classified position from August of 1988 to February of 1989, but that thereafter the time sheet records reported him as a “foreman, ” and that he was paid a salary, without deduction for union dues, all indicating that he was not working in a classified position. R. at 24.[4]

         The appeals hearing was held before a hearing officer on March 30, 2011, at which Mrs. Odle represented herself. She submitted a number of documents in support of her claim, all which were considered by the hearing officer. On January 23, 2012, a lengthy and detailed written decision was rendered by the hearing officer in which Mrs. Odle was awarded an additional one-quarter year of credited service for 1984 (for a total of 15.5 years) but denied the remaining years she had claimed.

         Mrs. Odle requested a second review of the Trustees' decision. She was granted such a review and on February 15, 2013, was provided blank forms for co-worker statements for her to use “to help identify Mr. Odle's employment status.” R. at 75.

         On October 18, 2013, the Trustees again upheld its denial and sent a letter to Mrs. Odle stating the following:

Please be advised that no further consideration can be given to this case unless you submit new evidence relating to the facts in dispute. Substantive evidence, such as official company records, would be required in order for an administrative review of the case to take place.

R. at 78.

         Mrs. Odle then requested a third review of the decision and a hearing, at which she desired to present former co-workers of her husband to testify about the nature of his job duties with Dale Coal for the periods in question. A hearing was held where four former co-workers were interviewed together, at their insistence. The co-worker's statements presented ...


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