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Gould v. University of Miami

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

September 19, 2017

KEITH GOULD, Plaintiff,



         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant University of Miami's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, ECF No. [11]. The Plaintiff has filed an Opposition and the Defendant has filed a Reply, ECF Nos. [14] [18]. The case has been referred by the Honorable Kathleen M. Williams, United States District Judge, to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a determination of all non-dispositive matters and a report and recommendation on any dispositive matters, ECF No. [4].[1] For the following reasons, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 (a), 10 (b) and 12 (e), the undersigned orders the Plaintiff to file an Amended Complaint which sets forth a more definite statement of the claims asserted by Plaintiff. The undersigned denies the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss without prejudice to file a renewed motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, if warranted.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         This matter was initiated when Plaintiff Keith Gould (“Gould”) filed a Class Action Complaint against his former employer University of Miami (“University”) pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq. (“ERISA”). Generally, Gould contends that the University failed to provide certain ERISA plan benefits to him and other similarly situated employees, and also failed to advise those employees that such benefits were available to volunteer faculty members.

         Defendant has filed a Motion to Dismiss contending, among other things, that Plaintiff, as a volunteer faculty member, was not eligible to participate in the ERISA plans at issue, save one supplemental retirement plan, in which Plaintiff elected to not participate, ECF No. [11].

         Upon a thorough review of the Plaintiff's Class Action Complaint, the Parties' filings related to the Motion to Dismiss, and the applicable case law, as set forth in detail below, the undersigned directs the Plaintiff to file a more definite statement and denies the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, without prejudice.

         A. The Class Action Complaint

         The following facts are taken from the Class Action Complaint, and for purposes of resolving the Motion to Dismiss, are taken as true.

         Plaintiff is a former employee of the Defendant who brings this case on behalf of himself and all similarly-situated persons to “challenge the Defendant's breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA.” ECF No. [1] at 1. From March 2012 until July 2014, Plaintiff worked for the University as a member of the “voluntary faculty.” ECF No. [1] at 2, ¶ 6. In that capacity, Plaintiff worked more than forty (40) hours a week and was paid on a regular basis, ECF No. [1] at 2, ¶ 6. Plaintiff contends that the University classified him as an employee by identifying him as an employee in its payroll system, making employee tax deductions and withholdings from his pay, including deductions for the employee portion of Medicare and FICA taxes, issuing W-2s to the Plaintiff, and naming him as an “employee” and the University as his “employer.” ECF No. [2] at 2-3. The Defendant is the plan sponsor and a fiduciary for the various qualified retirement and welfare benefit plans offered to its employees including plans for health care insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, long term disability insurance, short term disability insurance, long term care insurance, life insurance, accident insurance, flexible spending accounts, retirement, supplemental retirement annuity, tuition remission, and legal assistance, ECF No. [1] at 3.

         On or about June 9, 2016, the Plaintiff sent a letter to the University requesting an explanation as to why he was not provided the same benefits as other employees. On or about June 14, 2016, the University responded to the Plaintiff's request in a letter which stated that the Plaintiff's rights were set forth in a Voluntary Faculty Manual which provided only limited privileges and benefits, ECF No. [1] at 4. On July 6, 2016, the Plaintiff submitted a claim to the University requesting that he be made whole for the University's failure to provide him benefits as to “all of the Plans.” ECF No. [1] at 4. That claim was denied on July 20, 2016, because, according to the University, Plaintiff was not an employee, and as a Voluntary Faculty member, was not eligible for benefits such as health insurance and retirement contributions, ECF No. [1] at 4. Following Plaintiff's request for a full and fair review of the denial, the University upheld the denial on November 16, 2016. The University stated that the denial was predicated upon the Plaintiff's failure to make elective deferrals from his University earnings during his period of work for the Supplemental Retirement Annuity Plan (“SRA Plan”), the only plan for which he was eligible to participate, ECF No. [1] at 5. Plaintiff was never notified of his eligibility for that plan or any other plan, and was not given the opportunity to make elective contributions to those plans. The Defendant never responded to the request for relief as to any of the other Plans.

         The Complaint also sets out “Allegations as to Class.” ECF No. [1] at 5-7. In that section, the Plaintiff describes the class as “numerous similarly-situated employees, including all employees classified as ‘voluntary faculty'.” ECF No. [1] at 5-6. The Plaintiff describes the common questions of law or fact for the class members as follows:

1. Whether the Class member are eligible to participate in the Plans notwithstanding their designation as “voluntary faculty”; and,
2. Whether the University can disregard the terms of its Plans based on other policies, such as the Voluntary Faculty Manual or the Faculty Manual.

ECF No. [1] at 6. The Complaint alleges one count of Breach of Fiduciary duty pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132 (a)(3), which asserts that the University violated its fiduciary duty under ERISA by failing to extend to Plaintiff, and members of the putative class, the opportunity to participate in the plans, ECF No. [1] at 7. The Plaintiff contends that as a result of the breach of fiduciary duty, the Plaintiff, and the class, suffered harm including the lost value of the Plan benefits, and that the University was unjustly enriched. The Plaintiff seeks class certification, an equitable award of all make-whole relief to which the Plaintiff and the Class are entitled, and an equitable award to remedy the University's unjust enrichment, attorneys' fees, costs, and interest, as permitted by law, and any other relief to which the Plaintiff and class are entitled, ECF No. [1] at 7-8.

         The Plaintiff attached no documents to the Complaint.

         B. The Defendant's Motion to Dismiss

         In the Motion to Dismiss, Defendant advances a number of arguments. Defendant first contends that although Plaintiff was only eligible to participate in the Supplemental Retirement Annuity (“SRA”) plan offered by the University, and was given the opportunity to do so, Plaintiff never elected to make contributions to that plan during his employment, ECF No. [11] at 2. Defendant further contends that the Plaintiff was not eligible to participate in any other plans offered by the University because Plaintiff was not a “regular” or “full-time” member of the faculty. Defendant thus contends that Plaintiff's action should be dismissed because ERISA § 502(a) only provides relief for plan participants, beneficiaries or fiduciaries.[3]

         Defendant next argues that, even if the Plaintiff is deemed to be a participant of any of the University's ERISA plans, the Plaintiff is still not entitled to relief pursuant to § 502(a)(3) of ERISA because any claim for recovery of unpaid benefits must be brought pursuant to § 502(a)(1)(B). Defendant further contends that relief is not available to the Plaintiff based upon the Defendant's alleged failure to affirmatively disclose unspecified “enrollment information” because the Court may not impose disclosure obligations and remedies on the Defendant where the Defendant is subject to the fiduciary duties under ERISA, which do not include such disclosure obligations.

         Defendant next contends that Plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action predicated on fraud by the University because the Plaintiff fails to meet the heightened pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b).

         Finally, Defendant contends that the Plaintiff has failed to allege facts that indicate that he suffered harm from any alleged ERISA violation or that the Defendant was unjustly enriched by any of the alleged violations.

         In support of its Motion to Dismiss, the University has submitted the Declaration of Jennifer S. Cohen, the Executive Director of HR-Benefits for the University, ECF No. [11-1]. Attached to the Declaration are copies of the letters referenced in the Plaintiff's Complaint including the June 9, 2016, July 6, 2016 and September 15, 2016 letters from Keith R. Gould, D.O., to the University, and the June 14, 2016, July 20, 2016, November 16, 2016 letters from the University to the Plaintiff, ECF Nos. [11-1]-[11-7]. Also attached to the Declaration is the Manual for the Voluntary Faculty of the ...

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