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Perkins v. U.S. Airways, Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

March 31, 2017

Jennifer Perkins, Plaintiff,
US Airways, Inc.; U.S. Airways Group; American Airlines Group, successor by merger with U.S. Airways, Inc.; and U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan, Defendants.


          Bruce Howe Hendricks United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants U.S. Airways, Inc., U.S. Airways Group, Inc., American Airlines Group Inc., and U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan's (collectively, “Defendants”) motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 71.) For the reasons set forth in this order, Defendants' motion is granted.


         The factual and procedural background of this case is set forth thoroughly in the Court's prior orders, (1) granting in part and denying in part Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and (2) denying Plaintiff Jennifer Perkins' (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) motion to reconsider. (See ECF Nos. 36 & 69.) The Court assumes knowledge of that background, incorporates it by specific reference herein, and summarizes here only in relevant part.

         Plaintiff is a participant in the U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan (the “Plan”). The Plan is a welfare benefit plan as defined by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(d)(1). Defendant U.S. Airways, Inc. (“US Airways”), was at all relevant times the plan administrator. On May 10, 2000, Plaintiff was struck by lightning while working as a flight attendant for U.S. Airways. Since that time she has suffered from a variety of medical issues related to the lightning strike, which ultimately prevented her from performing her duties as a flight attendant. Plaintiff has been on an approved medical leave of absence from U.S. Airways since October 2001, and has been receiving long-term disability benefits since that time.

         The gravamen of this lawsuit, as initially filed, was Plaintiff's challenge of U.S. Airways' denial of certain claims for medical benefits under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., and the Medicare Secondary Payer Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1395y(b)(3)(A), along with her assertion that U.S. Airways failed to adequately explain the reason for the denial, in violation of the procedural requirements of ERISA § 503(2), 29 U.S.C. § 1133(2). The Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss these claims, and denied Plaintiff's motion to reconsider that ruling. (See ECF Nos. 36 & 69.) Plaintiff's only remaining claim is that U.S. Airways violated ERISA by failing to timely provide her with Plan documents pursuant to ERISA § 502(c)(1), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(c)(1). (See Compl. ¶¶ 65-73, ECF No. 1.)

         On October 18, 2010, Plaintiff submitted a written request, via certified mail return receipt requested, to U.S. Airways for copies of the “Summary Plan Descriptions for U.S. Airways Flight Attendants Health Benefits and Long Term Disability Benefits for years 2010, 2001, and 2000 . . . .” (ECF No. 71-13.) This written request apparently followed several conversations Plaintiff had undertaken with a representative of U.S. Airways, in which it was indicated that the documents related to the Plan would be mailed to Plaintiff, and Plaintiff was informed where they could be found on the company's “eBenefits” portal (though Plaintiff was unable to locate them there). (Id.)

         One week later, on October 25, 2010, U.S. Airways sent to Plaintiff, via federal express, copies of various documents related to the Plan, including the 1993 Health Benefits Plan Summary Plan Description (“1993 SPD”) and all other materials U.S. Airways determined to be relevant to Plaintiff's request. (ECF No. 71-12 at 5.) Plaintiff acknowledges that she received the Plan materials mailed to her in October 2010, whereupon she wrote down the titles of the documents received, placed them back in the envelope in which they came, and “turned [them] over” to her attorney, Mr. Norris A. Adams, II, Esq. (“Adams”), without “look[ing] at [the 1993 SPD].” (Perkins Dep. 38:18-39:3, 59:22-60:7, ECF No. 71-2 at 10-11, 15-16.)

         On November 4, 2010, Plaintiff requested Plan documents again, itemizing various documents she asserted U.S. Airways had not provided in response to her October 18, 2010 letter. She wrote:

         Thank you for the Summary Plan Descriptions you sent October 27, 2010, consisting of the following:

1) U.S. Air Health Benefit Plan January 1993
2) U.S. Airways Long Term Disability Benefit Plan April 1, 2001
3) U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan May 1, 2003 and (2) 4) U.S. Airways Long Term Benefit Plans Jan. 1, 2004[1]
So far I have only received one Summary Plan that I have requested and that is the Long Term SPD for 2001. I have been requesting these Summary Plans since Sept. 13, 2010.[2] U.S. Airways flight attendant contract changed May 1, 2000, and I would like the Summary Plans that covered that new contract for Health, and Long Term Benefits. I still would like the Summary Plan Descriptions for the following:
1) U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan for May 1, 2000
2) U.S. Airways Long Term Disability Plan May 1, 2000
3) U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan for 2001
4) U.S. Airways Long Term Disability Plan for 2003*
5) U.S. Airways Health Benefit Plan for 2010
6) U.S. Airways Long Term Benefit Plan for 2010
*A new request as of November 4, 2010.

(ECF No. 71-10 at 2.) Kimie Shanahan, U.S. Airways Manager Benefits Services responded to Plaintiff's second request on November 8, 2010, stating:

Dear Jennifer,
First of all let me apologize if I have not been clear in our prior contacts. The SPD's [sic] and plan documents that I sent to you are the only ones there are. The fact that your contract may have changed does not mean that the medical plan or the Flight Attendant LTD plan also changed. We do not write new plans simply because the contract has been changed. The Collectively bargained agreements are completely different from the company medical plan or the long term disability plan and very little about either of those plans is actually covered by the Flight Attendant contract.
I have provided you with everything we have about both the health plan and the Flight Attendant long term disability plan. If you are looking for something specific that was covered in one or more of the Flight Attendant contracts and you believe it should be included in the LTD plan or the health care plan then it would be helpful for me to know exactly what it is you are trying to find. Let me also say that if there is any way in which the health plan or the LTD plan differs from the Contract, the Contract will always prevail.
Please let me know if you have any further questions.

(ECF No. 71-11 at 2 (emphasis added).)

         On January 25, 2011, Adams wrote to U.S. Airways on Plaintiff's behalf, inter alia, requesting various documents related to the Plan. (ECF No. 71-9 at 4-6.) In that letter, Adams repeated Plaintiff's assertion that only “the 1993, 2003, and 2004 summary plan descriptions” had been provided to Plaintiff, and “reassert[ed]” Plaintiff's document requests because of U.S. Airways' putative “failure to adequately respond” thereto. (Id. at 4-5.) In a February 11, 2011 letter addressing Adams' contention that U.S. Airways had improperly refused to provide Plaintiff with copies of Plan documents, Don Pan, U.S. Airways Vice President of Human Resources, stated:

Pursuant to Ms. Perkins' October 2010 requests, Kimie Shanahan transmitted to Ms. Perkins by federal express on October 25, 2010 copies of the Health Plan's summary plan descriptions dated 1993, 2003 and 2008, as well as the LTD plan's Plan document and current SPD. Ms. Perkins also requested SPDs for 2000, 2001 and 2010, as those dates correspond to new collective bargaining agreements. However, as Ms. Shanahan explained to Ms. Perkins, there are no SPDs with those specific dates; contrary to Ms. Perkins' understanding, the Plan Administrator for the Medical Plan and for the LTD Plan was not required by law to issue a new SPD, and did not issue a new SPD, every time there was a change to the terms of the flight attendants' collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Airways. Rather, ERISA requires plan administrators to issue new SPDs every five years if plan amendments have been made during the prior five years, and every ten years if no plan amendments were made. ERISA § 104(b)(1). The Plan Administrator for the LTD Plan and the Medical Plan has furnished updated SPDs in accordance with ERISA's requirements. The Flight Attendant Agreement Between U.S. Airways, Inc. and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO dated January 10, 2005 to December 31, 2011 is enclosed as requested.

(ECF No. 71-12 at 5-6 (emphasis in original, internal footnote omitted).)

         Plaintiff's current ERISA § 502(c)(1) claim focuses on document requests she posed to U.S. Airways in September 2011 and December 2011. On September 30, 2011, Plaintiff penned another letter seeking, inter alia, “any medical and vocational records, the relevant group insurances [sic] policies, the relevant Summary Plan Discriptions [sic], [and] all relevant admendments [sic] to Summary Plan Discriptions [sic] . . . .” (ECF No. 1-1 at 2.) Ms. Shanahan responded to this request by way of a December 2, 2011 letter, stating: “With respect to your document request, we have already provided all relevant plan documents, summary plan descriptions and collective bargaining agreements that govern the terms of your medical coverage (please see our discussion of this topic in the last section of our February 11, 2011 letter).”[3] (ECF No. 1-2 at 2.) On December 13, 2011, Plaintiff wrote yet another letter seeking Plan documents, and referencing Ms. Shanahan's December 2, 2011 letter as follows:

In your explanation for not sending me documents requested, I understand U.S. Airways sent Mr. Adams all relevant plan documents Feb. 11, 2011. It is my understanding under ERISA that it is my right to also request those documents for myself based on my leave in 2001.[4]
I would appreciate if you could send me the following information: all relevant plan documents that were in your possession at the time U.S. Airways made the decision to name themselves secondary payor of my medical benefits for 2011. All Summary Plan Discriptions [sic] in FULL (my copy and Mr. Adams copy of the 1993 Health Benefit Plan were missing pages 121 thru 125)[5], all relevant admendments [sic] to the Summary Plan Discriptions [sic], and all collective bargaining agreements.

(ECF No. 1-3 at 3.) Next, Plaintiff's current counsel wrote a letter dated January 25, 2012, asserting that U.S. Airways had failed to provide requested Plan documents in response to Plaintiff's September 30, 2011 and December 13, 2011 letters, and stating:

My client has checked with her previous attorney. While he did have some Plan Documents, he did not have the entire Plan Documents at issue. More specifically, as my client wrote to you on December 13, 2011, the health benefit plan was missing pages 121 through 125, when it was provided to Mr. Adams. Consequently, my client does not have a complete copy of that entire document. We understand the missing pages are the ones that address the ...

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