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Vetter v. American Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

January 31, 2019

LESLIE R. VETTER, Plaintiff,


          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge

         In a comprehensive Memorandum Opinion and Order in this Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1132, action, I denied the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Leslie Vetter, a pilot for American Airlines, Inc., and Defendant American Airlines, Inc. Pilot Long-Term Disability Plan (“the Plan”), the employee benefit plan that American Airlines, Inc. sponsored and which was administered by the Pension Benefits Administrative Committee (the “Plan Administrator”). ECF No. 31. I observed that “[t]he Plan Administrator initially denied the benefits on July 31, 2012, ” but then, when Vetter appealed, the Plan Administrator issued a letter on August 12, 2013, “award[ing]her benefits of $12, 795.79 for the period from May 3, 2012 through July 23, 2012, but determined that benefits were not appropriate after July 23, 2012 because Vetter no longer was disabled.” Id. at 1 (citing Administrative Record (“AR”) 57-69, 158-62, ECF No. 21). I noted that the Plan Administrator “did not address benefits between February 22, 2012, when Vetter stopped receiving pay, and May 3, 2012.” Id. I concluded that the Plan's decision not to award benefits before May 3, 2012 or after July 23, 2012 was not supported by substantial evidence and therefore an abuse of discretion. Id. at 27. Because I also found that the onset and duration of Vetter's disability was not clear on the record before me, I remanded this case for further proceedings before the Plan Administrator. Id. at 27-28.[1]

         Now pending is the Plan's Motion for Reconsideration, ECF No. 32.[2] The Plan challenges my conclusions regarding its decision not to award benefits before May 3, 2012 and its decision not to award benefits after July 23, 2012. Defs.' Mem. 6-8. Because it would be manifestly unjust not to revise my conclusion regarding benefits before May 3, 2012, as the parties now have explained that Vetter was not entitled to such benefits, I will grant the motion in part. But, I will deny it as to benefits after July 23, 2012, as the Plan has not demonstrated a basis for granting it.

         Standard of Review

         Rule 54(b) governs motions for reconsideration of non-final orders, see Fayetteville Investors v. Commercial Builders, Inc., 936 F.2d 1462, 1472 (4th Cir. 1991), such as the March 5, 2018 Memorandum Opinion and Order remanding the case to the Plan Administrator, see Dickens v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 677 F.3d 228, 232 (4th Cir. 2012) (“[T]here is simply no basis for treating an order remanding a benefits determination to an ERISA claims administrator differently from a remand order to a federal administrative agency-which, as a general proposition, constitutes a non-final, non-appealable decision”). It provides that such an order “may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities.” Id.

         The Fourth Circuit has not stated a standard for review of a Rule 54(b) motion, but it has said that, “generally at least, a review of an interlocutory order under Rule 54 is not subject to the restrictive standards of motions for reconsideration of final judgments under Rule 60.” Fayetteville Investors, 936 F.2d at 1472; see also Am. Canoe Ass'n v. Murphy Farms, Inc., 326 F.3d 505, 514 (4th Cir. 2003). Nor is the standard for Rule 59(e) binding on review under Rule 54. See Am. Canoe Ass'n, 326 F.3d at 514; Cezair v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. DKC-13-2928, 2014 WL 4955535, at *1 (D. Md. Sept. 30, 2014). Nonetheless, “courts frequently look to these standards for guidance in considering such motions.” Cezair, 2014 WL 4955535, at *1; see also Peters v. City of Mt. Rainier, No. GJH-14-955, 2014 WL 4855032, at *3 n.1 (D. Md. Sept. 29, 2014) (looking to Rule 60(b) standard); Harper v. Anchor Packing. Co., No. GLR-12-460, 2014 WL 3828387, at *1 (D. Md. Aug. 1, 2014) (looking to Rule 59(e) standard); Potter v. Potter, 199 F.R.D. 550, 552 n.1 (D. Md. 2001) (applying Rule 59(e) standard). A Rule 59(e) motion “need not be granted unless the district court finds that there has been an intervening change of controlling law, that new evidence has become available, or that there is a need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice.” Robinson v. Wix Filtration Corp. LLC, 599 F.3d 403, 411 (4th Cir. 2010). Rule 60(b) provides overlapping, but broader, bases for relief from a court order, including that there has been “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, . . . excusable neglect[, ] . . . newly discovered evidence[, ] . . . fraud . . ., misrepresentation, or misconduct”; that “the judgment is void” or “has been satisfied”; or “any other reason that justifies relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b).

         In keeping with these standards, this Court has held that “[a] motion for reconsideration is appropriate to ‘correct manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered evidence,' or where there has been an intervening change in controlling law.” Potter, 199 F.R.D. at 552 n.1 (citations omitted). It “is not a license for a losing party's attorney to get a second bite at the apple.” Id. at 552-53 (quoting Shields v. Shetler, 120 F.R.D. 123, 126 (D. Co. 1988)). These “rules of constraint . . . make sense when a district court is asked to reconsider its own order” because “‘[w]ere it otherwise, then there would be no conclusion to motions practice, each motion becoming nothing more than the latest installment in a potentially endless serial that would exhaust the resources of the parties and the court-not to mention its patience.” Pinney v. Nokia, Inc., 402 F.3d 430, 452-53 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Potter, 199 F.R.D. at 553).

         Benefits Before May 3, 2012

         The Plan asserts that “May 3, 2012 is the date on which LTD benefit payments began-it is not the date on which Plaintiff was first found to be disabled.” Def.'s Mem. 6. It explains:

         Under the terms of the Plan, there is a waiting period from the date a disability is found to have begun to the date LTD benefit payments commence:

“Elimination Period” means the period between the Pilot Employee's date of Disability and the date disability benefit payments commence under the Plan. The benefits shall commence ninety (90) days after the onset of the Disability or related Disability or on the expiration of paid sick leave and/or vacation, whichever occurs later; provided that there has been and continues to be qualified medical care consistent with the nature of the illness or injury.

Id. Indeed, Plaintiff had alleged that “[t]he Plan states that benefits will begin after a claimant satisfies the waiting/elimination period and will continue until the claimant is no longer ‘Disabled' under the terms of the plan or the claimant reaches the maximum duration of the benefit.” Compl. ¶ 25, ECF No. 1. But, neither party in any of their briefing had defined the “elimination period” or stated that it prevented Vetter from collecting disability benefits before May 3, 2012. See Cross-Mots. & Mems., Opp'ns & Replies, ECF Nos. 23, 23-1, 26, 29, 30. Given that they now both make clear that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits before May 3, 2012 because the elimination period had not ended, see Def.'s Mem. 6-7; Pl.'s Opp'n 6 & n.1, I now conclude that the Plan correctly decided not to award benefits to Vetter for the period before May 3, 2012. In this regard, Defendant's Motion for Reconsideration is granted, as it would be manifestly unjust to award benefits to which the parties agree Vetter was not entitled under the undisputed terms of the Plan. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b); Robinson, 599 F.3d at 411; Potter, 199 F.R.D. at 552 n.1.

         Benefits After July 23, 2012

         As for Vetter's entitlement to disability benefits after July 23, 2012, the Plan's motion does not identify any change in the law, clear error, or fraud, or meet even the more relaxed Rule 54 criteria for granting a motion for reconsideration. Rather, the Plan argues that because there was substantial evidence (already before me) that Vetter's insomnia did not affect her ability to perform her job as a pilot as of July 23, 2012, I erred in concluding that the Plan Administrator could not overlook evidence that her ...

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