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Lagrone v. Omnova Solutions

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 31, 2018

LARRY LAGRONE and MACK A. BROCK PLAINTIFFS
v.
OMNOVA SOLUTIONS, and OMNOVA SOLUTIONS CONSOLIDATED PENSION PLAN DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Larry Lagrone and Mack Brock brought this action seeking to compel Defendants OMNOVA Solutions, Inc., and the OMNOVA Solutions Consolidated Pension Plan to arbitration following a denial of their claims for Special Early Retirement. Cross-motions for summary judgment have been filed, and the Court finds as follows:

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Larry Lagrone and Mack Brock were employed at OMNOVA Solutions, Inc., in Columbus, Mississippi and were members of the United Steelworkers of America Union while employed at that facility. They were covered under the OMNOVA Solutions Consolidated Pension Plan (“the Plan”). OMNOVA Solutions, Inc., and the Union later amended the Plan in 2007. That document is known as the Agreement for Pension, Service Award and Insurance (“the P & I Agreement”), and is specific to the Columbus, Mississippi plant.

         In 2010, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) under which the Union operated at OMNOVA Solutions, Inc., at the Columbus facility expired when an agreement could not be reached. Thus, pursuant to the terms of the CBA and the P & I Agreement, those contracts expired on May 15, 2010, and the employees engaged in a strike. Additional terms in the P & I Agreement reached between the Company and the Union in 2007 contemplated such a situation and provided that benefits under the Pension Plan would be continued for ninety days after the termination of the CBA agreement. Accordingly, in this case, the benefits expired on August 15, 2010.[1]

         After the benefits ninety day extension passed, both Lagrone and Brock filed claims for a benefit known as “Special Early Retirement” claiming they had the requisite 34 years of continuous service, and had attained the age of 55. Special Early Retirement for the Columbus, Mississippi facility is available for “[a]n Employee who . . . has completed 34 full Years of Credited Service and attained age 55 . . . .” Plan, Section B2.4(b), as amended by Schedule B-3. Both Brock and Lagrone turned 55 after August 15, 2010, but before the strike ended in 2012.

         Both claims were denied by the Company.

         Brock and Lagrone appealed that decision to the Administrative Committee, the entity charged with administering the Pension Plan. See Plan, Section 1.2. Both were issued written determinations which contained the same reasoning: Brock and Lagrone were not eligible for the Special Early Retirement benefits as they both turned 55 when they were not “Employees” under the Plan. Under the Plan, “Employee” is defined as

any person who is regularly employed by the Company and who is a person to whom, or is a member of a group of persons to whom, the benefits of this Non-Contributory Plan have been made and continue to be made available by agreement between the Company and the recognized collective bargaining representative of such group, or by designation by the Company.

Plan, Section B1.5.[2] As both Plaintiffs turned 55 after the Plan and CBA were terminated, the Administrative Committee decided that as of August 15, 2010, they were not “person[s] to whom . . . the benefits of this Non-Contributory Plan . . . continue to be made available by agreement between the Company and the recognized collective bargaining representative of such group . . . .” Again, Brock and Lagrone appealed the decision and demanded “arbitration as provided in Section B-V of the Plan.” The Administrative Committee again denied their claims and noted that Section B-V of the Plan “does not require arbitration of the appeal.” The denial letter highlighted that the Section states that differences “may be taken up as a grievance under the grievance procedure . . .” and that because the Union was charged with prosecuting that grievance and the Union had been decertified, there was no grievance procedure or Company Grievance Committee to present the claim. Therefore, no decision from the Grievance Committee could be appealed to arbitration.

         Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, and the parties have now filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment [20, 25] on the arbitration question.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         “Standard summary judgment rules control in ERISA cases.” Cooper v. Hewlett–Packard Co., 592 F.3d 645, 651 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Vercher v. Alexander & Alexander Inc., 379 F.3d 222, 225 (5th Cir. 2004)). Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

         Choice of Law Provision

         Mississippi generally upholds choice of law provisions in contracts where the contract is valid and binding. See Williamson Pounders Architects, P.C. v. Tunica County, No. 2:06cv206-SA, 2007 WL 2903216, *2 (N.D. Miss. July 21, 2008). Neither party addressed the choice of law issue, but the contracts at issue specifically state Ohio state law shall be applied. Plan, Section 7.7; P & I Agreement, Section VII (Plan “shall be” construed and administered ...


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