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Michael v. Conagra Brands, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

April 23, 2019

VICKI MICHAEL, On behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
CONAGRA BRANDS, INC. PENSION PLAN FOR HOURLY PRODUCTION WORKERS, an employee pension benefit plan; CONAGRA BRANDS EMPLOYEE BENEFITS ADMINISTRATIVE COMMITTEE, the Plan Administrator; CONAGRA BRANDS APPEALS COMMITTEE; and DOES I-XX, individual members of the Plan administrative and/or appeals committees, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID C. NYE U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the Court is a Motion for More Definitive Statement (Dkt. 5) filed by Defendants ConAgra Brand, Inc. Pension Plan for Hourly Production Workers (“the ConAgra Plan”), ConAgra Brands Employee Benefits Administrative Committee (“Administrative Committee”), ConAgra Brands Appeals Committee (“Appeals Committee”), and Does I-XX (“Does”) (referred to collectively as “Defendants”). Defendants move for a more definite statement regarding the claims and allegations against each of them. The Court finds this matter suitable for disposition without oral argument. See Dist. Idaho Loc. Civ. R. 7.1(d)(2)(ii). Having considered the parties' submissions and the relevant legal authority, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         This case stems from the administration of a qualified pension plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). See ERISA §3(2)(A), 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A). Plaintiff Vicki Michael (“Michael”) was a participant in the ConAgra Plan. The history of how Michael became a participant in the ConAgra Plan spans over 42 years of her employment, and is summarized as follows:

         In 1974, Michael began her employment at a processing plant (“Lamb-Weston”) in American Falls, Idaho. At that time, Amfac Foods, Inc. owned the plant and established and maintained an employee benefits plan called the Pension Plan for Hourly Bargaining Unit Employees of Amfac Foods, Inc. (“Prior Amfac Plan”). Michael earned benefits under the Prior Amfac Plan from 1974 to 1988.

         In 1988, Amfac Foods, Inc. terminated the Prior Amfac Plan following the sale of its outstanding common stock. The Pension Plan for Hourly Bargaining Unit Employees of Lamb-Weston, Inc. (“Lamb-Weston Plan”) replaced the Prior Amfac Plan. Relevant here, the Lamb-Weston Plan vested service credit to employees who earned employment credit under the Prior Amfac Plan. Michael earned benefits under the Lamb-Weston Plan from 1988 to 2014.

         In 2014, the Lamb-Weston Plan merged with the ConAgra Plan. The portion of the ConAgra Plan resulting from this merger (“Bargaining Unit Plan”) provides “pension benefits to participants who work or have worked for ConAgra and previously worked for Lamb-Weston, Inc. and/or Amfac Foods, Inc.” Dkt. 1, ¶ 17. The Bargaining Unit Plan contains a sample calculation (“Benefit Formula”) with a 35-year service cap (“35-Year Cap”). The 35-Year Cap only calculates “the last 35 years” of an employee's service and disregards employment service (“Disregarded Service”) beyond 35 years. Thus, in Michael's situation, seven years of her 42 years of employment were classified as Disregarded Service under the Bargaining Unit Plan.

         In 2016, Michael concluded her employment at Lamb-Weston and began receiving pension benefit payments shortly thereafter. However, Michael believed that her payments were less than the amount due under the ConAgra Plan. On July 20, 2017, Michael filed a claim with the Administrative Committee claiming that the 35-Year Cap was misapplied to her benefits calculations. Specifically, she claimed that reducing her benefits by all the retirement income accrued and paid under the Prior Amfac Plan, including retirement income accrued during her seven years of Disregarded Service (i.e. 1975 to 1981), was an excessive subtraction under the ConAgra Plan.

         On September 13, 2017, Michael received written notice from Ryan Egan, Vice President of Human Resources for ConAgra Brands, Inc., that the Administrative Committee denied her claim. The basis for the denial was that “the number of years of service under the Prior [Amfac] Plan does not impact the [35-Year Cap]” under the Bargaining Unit Plan, and her benefits were calculated correctly. Dkt. 1, ¶ 34.

         Shortly thereafter, Michael filed an appeal with the Appeals Committee, questioning the application of the 35-Year Cap to her benefits and other employees similarly situated. Michael, again, received written notice from Mr. Egan that the committee denied her appeal because the subtractions to her benefits calculation were “properly applied in accordance” with the Prior Amfac Plan. Id. at ¶ 39.

         On June 18, 2018, Michael filed her Complaint seeking to recover employment benefits on behalf of herself and other employees similarly situated. On August 21, 2018, the Court entered an order granting a stipulation that Michael had “until August 31, 2018 to make a decision and notify Defendants regarding whether she [would] voluntarily amend her Complaint.” Dkt. 4. The Court established a September 10, 2018, deadline for Michael “to file an amended complaint.” Id. Michael did not amend her complaint, and Defendants filed their Motion for More Definite Statement on October 10, 2018. Dkt. 5.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 12(e) allows a party to move for a more definite statement of a pleading to which a responsive pleading is allowed but which is so vague or ambiguous that the party cannot reasonably prepare a response. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(e).

         Rule 12(e) has a specific and limited purpose and is only used when a complaint fails to meet the minimal pleading standards that put the defendant fairly on notice. F.R.C.P. 12(e). A motion for a more definite statement is a tool that a party may employ when a complaint is so general that the defendant cannot reasonably prepare the required response. Sagan v. Apple Computer, Inc., 874 F.Supp. 1072, 1077 (C.D. Cal. 1994). Thus, Rule 12(e) focuses on the pleading and not the merits of any claim; it ...


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