United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division
C. BUCKLEW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause comes before the Court on Publix's Motion for
Attorneys' Fees. (Doc. No. 56). Plaintiff Arlene Ruiz
opposes the motion. (Doc. No. 60). As explained below,
Publix's motion is denied.
Rizo is a former Publix employee 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 that in order to change the designated
beneficiary, the participant must fill out and submit a
signed Beneficiary Designation Card. In October of 2008,
Publix received Beneficiary Designation Cards from Rizo
changing her prior designated beneficiaries for both her ESOP
and 401(k) Plan to Counter-Defendants Alexander Perez-Vargas,
Andrea Vargas, and Jessica Vargas. In September of 2011, Rizo
was diagnosed with cancer. In January of 2015, when Rizo was
getting her affairs in order after her cancer had progressed,
Rizo attempted to change her beneficiaries for both her ESOP
and 401(k) Plan to Plaintiff Arlene Ruiz. Rizo did so by
sending a letter stating this intention and attaching that
letter to unsigned Beneficiary Designation Cards.
died on January 19, 2015. Thereafter, Publix received
Rizo's letter, as well as the Beneficiary Designation
Cards. Publix did not process the proposed beneficiary
changes, because the Beneficiary Designation Cards were not
properly filled out, as Rizo had not signed and dated them.
When Ruiz made a claim for benefits under the ESOP and the
401(k) Plan after Rizo's death, Publix denied her claim.
Thereafter, Ruiz filed the instant lawsuit for ERISA
parties moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether
Ruiz was the beneficiary of Rizo's ESOP and 401(k) Plan.
Publix argued that Ruiz was not the beneficiary, because Rizo
did not strictly comply with the requirements for filling out
the Beneficiary Designation Cards in order to make Ruiz the
beneficiary of her ESOP and 401(k) Plan. Ruiz argued that the
doctrine of substantial compliance applied, and because Rizo
substantially complied with the procedure for changing her
beneficiary to Ruiz, the Court should find that Ruiz was the
beneficiary of Rizo's ESOP and 401(k) Plan.
Court found that the case law cited by the parties supported
both of their positions and that based on their cited
authority, it was unclear whether the Eleventh Circuit would
apply the doctrine of substantial compliance. However, the
Court also noted that it was not clear that the doctrine of
substantial compliance is still viable after the Supreme
Court's decision in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for
DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, 555 U.S. 285 (2009).
Neither party addressed, or even cited to, the
Kennedy, the decedent's estate and the
decedent's ex-wife both made claims as the beneficiary of
a savings and investment plan (“SIP”), which was
an ERISA plan. See id. at 288-89. The ex-wife was
the named beneficiary of the SIP. See id. at 289. In
rejecting the estate's claim, the Supreme Court
ERISA requires [e]very employee benefit plan [to] be
established and maintained pursuant to a written instrument,
specify[ing] the basis on which payments are made to and from
the plan. The plan administrator is obliged to act in
accordance with the documents and instruments governing the
plan insofar as such documents and instruments are consistent
with the provisions of [Title I] and [Title IV] of [ERISA],
and ERISA provides no exemption from this duty when it comes
time to pay benefits. . . .
The Estate's claim therefore stands or falls by the terms
of the plan, a straightforward rule of hewing to the
directives of the plan documents that lets employers
establish a uniform administrative scheme, [with] a set of
standard procedures to guide processing of claims and
disbursement of benefits. The point is that by giving a plan
participant a clear set of instructions for making his own
instructions clear, ERISA forecloses any justification for
enquiries into nice expressions of intent, in favor of the
virtues of adhering to an uncomplicated rule: simple
administration, avoid[ing] double liability, and ensur[ing]
that beneficiaries get what's coming quickly, without the
folderol essential under less-certain rules.
The plan provided an easy way for [the decedent] to change
the designation, but for whatever reason he did not. The plan
provided a way to disclaim an interest in the SIP account,
but [the ex-wife] did not purport to follow it. The plan
administrator therefore did exactly what [ERISA] required:
the documents control, and those name [the ex-wife].
Id. at 300-01, 303-04 (quotation marks and internal
on Kennedy, this Court concluded the following in
its summary judgment order:
[I]t is doubtful that the doctrine of substantial compliance
remains viable, given the Supreme Court's emphasis on the
duty of a plan administrator to act in accordance with the
plan documents. The Supreme Court specifically stated that
ERISA forecloses any justification for inquiries into
expressions of intent that do not comply with the plan
documents. See id. at 301. Thus, it appears to this