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Benedetti v. Schlumberger Technology Corp.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

January 6, 2020




         Plaintiff Frank Benedetti was employed by Defendant Schlumberger Technology Corporation (“Schlumberger”) and as a result of an on-the-job injury he sought short-term and long-term disability benefits. He filed this action against Schlumberger, The Schlumberger Group Welfare Benefits Plan, and the Administrative Committee of the Schlumberger Group Welfare Benefits Plan pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) asserting that pursuant to the terms of the Schlumberger Plan he was entitled to both types of benefits, which were improperly denied, either explicitly or implicitly because no decision was ever tendered. Plaintiff further contends that Defendant Schlumberger retaliated against him for the exercise of his rights under the Plan by threatening to terminate him if he filed for long-term disability benefits. The matter is currently before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on the Merits (Doc. No. 22). Plaintiff responded in opposition to the motion (Doc. No. 24) and Defendants filed a Reply in support of their position. (Doc. No. 25). The Court conducted a hearing with counsel and upon consideration of the parties' filings and the hearing the Court finds as follows.

         The Court finds it necessary to set forth the unique procedural posture of this ERISA case, as motions for summary judgment are not typical in the ERISA context. Rather, and as was contemplated herein, after submission of the administrative record a plaintiff may seek discovery and to supplement the record. Thereafter, the plaintiff normally files an opening brief on the merits to which the defendant responds and plaintiff replies. To that end, the Court ordered the parties to present an agreed scheduling order, which they did, setting forth the following deadlines: (1) October 19, 2018, Defendants to provide Plaintiff with the administrative record; (2) November 23, 2018, Plaintiff's deadline for seeking discovery;[1] (3) January 4, 2019, Plaintiff's deadline to seek to supplement the administrative record; (4) February 8, 2019, Plaintiff to file brief on the merits; (5) March 8, 2019, Defendants' response brief due; and (6) March 22, 2019, Plaintiff to file his reply.[2](Doc. No. 16).

         Despite clearly established deadlines, Plaintiff failed to seek discovery or expansion of the record. Furthermore, he did not file his opening brief. Rather, on March 8, 2019, when no brief had been filed by Plaintiff, Defendant filed the instant motion. Although ordinarily this failure might cause the Court to limit or preclude Plaintiff from pursuing certain avenues of relief, the underlying factual scenario of this case, which itself involves missteps, this time by Defendants, leaves Plaintiff with a certain amount of wiggle room on certain of his ERISA claims.[3] With that caveat in mind, the Court turns to the underlying facts.

         Plaintiff Frank Benedetti alleges he suffered an on-the-job injury on December 9, 2013, which resulted in his absence from work at Schlumberger from that date until March 3, 2014. Although he returned to work Plaintiff allegedly found himself unable to perform the functions required for his position. Accordingly, Mr. Benedetti submitted his resignation on December 3, 2014.[4] Thereafter, in 2015, premised on his December 2013 injury, Plaintiff sought short term disability benefits via the Plan established by Schlumberger, which both sponsored and funded the Plan. He submitted his application to MetLife, which at the time had a contract to serve as the Plan's claims administrator.

         On September 28, 2015, MetLife issued its first denial on Plaintiff's application for short term disability benefits. (Doc.No. 22-1, p. 6) The letter reflected that such benefits ended when employment ended and that because Plaintiff ceased employment with Schlumberger on December 3, 2014, he was ineligible for short term disability benefits. The denial letter informed Plaintiff of his right to appeal, a right Plaintiff exercised by filing an appeal on October 17, 2015. According to the notes from the claims file, Plaintiff's appeal indicated the following:

I suffered my injuries 12/9/13 while employed and covered by Schlumberger[.] MetLife has turned a medical catastrophe into a traumatic personal financial disaster, Schlumberger coerced me back to work or face termination with my retirement savings depleted. I was still being treated for my back injury and was not released to RTW[.] I am still suffering constant back pain and paralysis in my legs, erectile dysfunction, bowel control problems. I had to quit my job as I was not allowed recovery from my injuries of 12/9/13 (not sure if 2013) is a typo or the actual date of injury??).

(Doc. No. 22-1, p. 2).

         On appeal, MetLife reversed its prior decision on Plaintiff's clarification that his benefits claim was premised on his December 2013 injuries, while he was still an employee, stating in a January 13, 2016 letter:

Please be advised a thorough review of your claim was completed by the MetLife Disability Appeals department. It has been determined that the previous claims decision will be reversed and your benefits will be reinstated. The file has been returned to the claims team to adjust your STD claim accordingly. Any benefits due will be sent under separate cover. The case manager will notify you of any further developments regarding your claim.

Id. p. 10. Almost a month later, in a February 8, 2016 letter, MetLife informed Plaintiff of the following:

We have completed our review of your claim for benefits and approved your claim from December 10, 2013 through March 2, 2014.
Since our records reflect you returned to work on March 3, 2014, no additional benefits are payable beyond March 2, 2014 and your claim has been closed.
You will receive your disability benefit payment directly from your employer.
Your STD benefits are generally reduced by the amount of any other benefits you receive. This may include but is not limited to . . ...

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