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Ruiz v. Publix Super Markets, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

March 30, 2017

ARLENE RUIZ, Plaintiff,
v.
PUBLIX SUPER MARKETS, INC., Defendant, PUBLIX SUPER MARKETS, INC., Defendant/Counter-Plaintiff
v.
ARLENE RUIZ, ALEXANDER PEREZ-VARGAS, ANDREA VARGAS, and JESSICA VARGAS, Counter-Defendants.

          ORDER

          SUSAN C. BUCKLEW United States District Judge

         This cause comes before the Court on Publix's Motion for Summary Judgment.[1] (Doc. No. 34). Plaintiff Arlene Ruiz opposes the motion and asks for summary judgment in her favor instead. (Doc. No. 41). As explained below, Publix's motion is granted.

         I. Standard of Review

         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). The Court must draw all inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and resolve all reasonable doubts in that party's favor. See Porter v. Ray, 461 F.3d 1315, 1320 (11th Cir. 2006)(citation omitted). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing the Court, by reference to materials on file, that there are no genuine issues of material fact that should be decided at trial. See id. (citation omitted). When a moving party has discharged its burden, the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits, or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. See id. (citation omitted).

         II. Background[2]

         Irialeth Rizo is a former Publix employee[3] who died from cancer on January 19, 2015. During her employment with Publix, Rizo participated in the Publix Super Markets, Inc. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (“ESOP”) and the Publix Super Markets, Inc. 401(k) SMART Plan (“401(k) Plan”). The Summary Plan Descriptions for the ESOP and the 401(k) Plan both provide for an initial beneficiary designation via a Beneficiary Designation Card. (Doc. No. 38-1, p. 9, 46). In order to change the designated beneficiary, these plans provide the following directives:

It is important to remember to change your beneficiary designation when the situation calls for it . . . . If you wish to change your beneficiary(ies), please obtain a Beneficiary Designation Card from your work location's Publix Communication Center and complete, sign and submit it to the Retirement Department, Publix Corporate Office, Lakeland, Florida. Your change of beneficiary designation is not valid under the Plan until the Retirement Department receives and processes the properly completed Beneficiary Designation Card.

(Doc. No. 38-1, p. 11, 47). The plans also provide the following instructions for completing a Beneficiary Designation Card:

Remember that a Beneficiary Designation Card is a legal document. It should not contain mark outs, erasures or correction fluid. It should be typed or printed in ink, and you must sign and date the card. Your beneficiary designation is not valid under the Plan until the Retirement Department receives and processes the properly completed Beneficiary Designation Card.

(Doc. No. 38-1, p. 10, 46).

         In October of 2008, Publix received Beneficiary Designation Cards from Rizo changing her prior designated beneficiaries for both her ESOP and 401(k) Plan. (Doc. No. 38-5; Doc. No. 38, ¶ 22). These Beneficiary Designation Cards named (1) her nephew, Alexander Perez-Vargas, (2) her niece, Andrea Vargas, and (3) her niece, Jessica Vargas, as her beneficiaries for both her ESOP and 401(k) Plan. (Doc. No. 38-5; Doc. No. 38, ¶ 22).

         In September of 2011, Rizo was diagnosed with cancer. On January 15, 2015, when Rizo was getting her affairs in order after her cancer had progressed, Rizo called Publix to find out how to change her beneficiaries for her ESOP and 401(k) Plan. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 79, 83). Arlene Ruiz was with Rizo while Rizo made the call on speaker phone.[4] (Doc. No. 44, depo. p. 79-82). According to Ruiz, the Publix representative told Rizo that in order to change her beneficiaries, she must do the following:

She must write a letter. And in the letter[, ] she must put the person she wants, with their Social Security number . . . . That she must include her name, her Social Security number, cards[5] if she can get ahold of them. The main thing was, they kept emphasizing that the most important part of the letter was to make sure she signed it and dated, that was a must.

(Doc. No. 44, depo p. 86-87). The Publix representative said that the cards really were not important because Rizo was not an active associate at the time. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 88).

         On January 18, 2015, Rizo dictated a letter that Ruiz transcribed. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 88-90). The letter stated the following:

January 18, 2015
To Publix Retirement Department,
I am writing to update my personal information, and to make changes to my beneficiary for both my ESOP & my 401k accounts[.] Enclosed you will find new cards made out and to be in effect right away as I dated and signed this request.
My updated information is as follows: My new beneficiary is Arlene Ruiz [Social Security number redacted] 100% as stated on cards enclosed.
(My name is:) Irialeth Rizo
(My new address =) [address redacted]
My SS# is: [Social Security number redacted]
Please update all my information I am requesting[.] Any questions you can reach me at [phone numbers redacted.] My new update [sic] beneficiary cards are enclosed.
Thank you,
/s/ Irialeth Rizo
01-18-2015

(Doc. No. 47). After Ruiz drafted the letter, Rizo read it two or three times and then signed and dated it. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 90). Additionally, Rizo directed Ruiz to put Ruiz's name and Social Security number on two cards. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 91-92). At some point later, Rizo gave Ruiz a sealed envelope addressed to Publix's corporate office and asked Ruiz to mail the envelope. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 91-92). Ruiz did not see what was inside the envelope, but she assumed it was the letter she had transcribed. (Doc. No. 44, depo p. 93).

         Rizo died on January 19, 2015. Thereafter, Publix received the January 18, 2015 letter from Rizo, as well as the Beneficiary Designation Cards.[6] On the signature lines of the Beneficiary Designation Cards, Rizo did not place her signature; instead, she wrote “as stated in letter.” (Doc. No. 41, ¶ 22). According to Publix, after it received the letter and cards, Publix did not process the change of beneficiary, because the Beneficiary Designation Cards were not properly filled out, as Rizo had not signed and dated them. (Doc. No. 43, depo p. 19). According to Publix, it returned the Beneficiary Designation Cards to Rizo with a letter explaining why they were being returned. (Doc. No. 43, depo p. 19-21). No such letter from Publix was ever received, despite the fact that other correspondence from Publix was received.[7]

         When Ruiz made a claim for benefits under the ESOP and the 401(k) Plan after Rizo's death, Publix denied ...


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