United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division
OPINION AND ORDER
HOLMES, III U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.
the Court is an action under the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), initiated by
Plaintiff Ronnie Hatton's complaint (Doc. 1). Defendant
Ingersoll Rand Company Limited Benefits Administration
Committee (“Ingersoll”) filed an answer (Doc. 6),
and the parties submitted a stipulated administrative record
(Doc. 9). Hatton then filed a motion for summary judgment
(Doc. 12), statement of facts (Doc. 14), and a brief in
support (Doc. 13). Defendant filed a response in opposition
(Doc. 16), and a response to Hatton's statement of facts
(Doc. 15). For the following reasons, Hatton's motion for
summary judgment will be DENIED and summary judgment will be
entered in favor of Defendant Ingersoll.
Hatton's employment with Trane U.S. Inc.
(“Trane”) began in February of 1990 at its Fort
Smith facility. (Doc. 9, p. 926). Hatton worked as a machine
operator for Trane until May 15, 2014. Id. In this
role, Hatton was making $28, 800.49 as a base salary and his
annual compensation was $40, 553.24 when benefits and
overtime were included. (Doc. 14, p. 1). On December 9, 2014,
Hatton applied for disability benefits under the Trane Merged
Hourly Pension Plan. (Doc. 9, p. 1309). Hatton's
physician, Dr. Donna Shipley, noted that his diagnosis was
“knee pain from [osteoarthritis]” and back pain
from degenerative disc disease of the spine. (Doc. 9, p.
1311). Shipley identified Hatton as having a “severe
limitation of functional capacity: incapable of minimal
(sedentary) activity.” Id. In response to this
claim, the Ingersoll-Rand Company Benefits Administration
Committee (“BAC”) reviewed Hatton's
claim.(Doc. 9, p. 1307). The BAC initiated a
medical records review by Dr. William C. Andrews. (Doc. 9, p.
1329). Dr. Andrews determined based on a conversation with
Dr. Shipley and a review of Hatton's medical records that
Hatton “would be capable of working eight hours per
day, 40 hours per week” in a sedentary capacity. (Doc.
9, p. 1330). At the time, the BAC defined disability under
the pension plan as “disabled from performing further
work for any occupation for remuneration or profit prior to
his Severance Date, and in the Company's opinion is
likely to remain so disabled continuously and
permanently.” (Doc. 9, p. 1331). Based on Dr.
Andrews's report, the committee denied Hatton's claim
for disability benefits. (Doc. 9, p. 1307). On June 29, 2015,
Hatton appealed the BAC's decision. (Doc. 9, p. 1334).
The BAC had Hatton undergo an Independent Medical Examination
(“IME”) by Kevin Trangle, a board-certified
internist. (Doc. 9, p. 889). Dr. Trangle completed a thorough
review of Hatton's medical history and concluded that he
likely had “physical and functional limitations,
” but “is not precluded . . . from working in a
sedentary occupation.” (Doc. 9, p. 905). Thus, Dr.
Trangle concluded that Hatton's medical history did not
establish that the claimant was totally disabled from
performing further work by the definition of “any
occupation for remuneration or profit.” (Doc. 9, p.
906). On August 25, 2015, the BAC denied Hatton's appeal
and concluded that documentation from Hatton's medical
providers as well as the reports from independent medical
specialists demonstrated a lack of evidence that his medical
conditions precluded him from working in any occupation.
(Doc. 9, p. 892). On November 9, 2015, Hatton's attorney
reached out to Ingersoll seeking Hatton's records from
the administrative appeal. (Doc. 9, p. 886). In response,
Ingersoll sent Hatton's attorney the records and shared
with him that Ingersoll was reopening Hatton's claim for
disability benefits in light of this Court's order in
Betnar v. Ingersoll Rand Company Limited, Case
2:14-cv-02032, that directed Ingersoll to conduct a
vocational review in its determination of disability pension
January 21, 2016, BAC scheduled a functional capacity
evaluation for Hatton with Mike Williams, a physical
therapist at WorkStrategies. Williams concluded that Hatton
demonstrated the ability to function in “Light Physical
Demand Category for an 8 hour day . . . based on his material
handling capabilities.” (Doc. 9, p. 838). Williams
noted that the results of his evaluation “cannot be
considered an accurate representation of Mr. Hatton's
maximal functional capacity” due to inconsistency
during testing. Id. Williams notes in his report
that he believed Hatton did not put forth maximum effort
while completing the tests. Id. The committee also
had a vocational employability assessment completed for
Hatton. (Doc. 9, p. 830). The assessment determined that
based on Hatton's functional capacity allowing for
sedentary to light physical work, there were 49 occupational
titles that matched his skills. (Doc. 9, p. 832). Of those
titles, 2 were considered good matches, 14 were considered
fair matches and 33 were considered potential matches.
Id. Wage data for those occupations averaged $28,
360 annually. (Doc. 9, p. 833).
receiving the functional capacity analysis and the vocational
employability assessment, the BAC determined that
Hatton's claim should be denied again. (Doc. 9, p. 816).
In its letter of denial, the BAC notes that because the base
salaries of the occupations identified as matches for
Hatton's functional capacity were equal to or greater
than his base salary when he left Trane, he was not disabled
under the Plan because “there were jobs that permit
[Hatton] to earn a reasonably substantial income from [his]
employment, rising to the dignity of an income or
livelihood.” (Doc. 9, p. 817). Hatton appealed the
decision of the BAC. In his appeal, Hatton argued that the
BAC's denial of his claim was based on “cherry
picked information” and supplemented Hatton's claim
file with a functional capacity assessment completed by
Velvet Medlock, a physical therapist. Medlock determined from
her tests that Hatton's functional capacity was
“below sedentary secondary to his inability to tolerate
any prolonged posture of more than 20 minutes.” (Doc.
9, p. 48). After receiving Hatton's second appeal,
Ingersoll had Hatton's entire claim file reviewed again
by Dr. Josette Boukhalil-Laklak, another independent
physician procured through Trangle &
Associates. Dr. Laklak determined that although Hatton
has “a complex medical history with multiple chronic
medical conditions . . . Hatton is able to stand and walk for
3 hours, lift up to 10 pounds, and push and pull up to 20
pounds. There are no limitations regarding sitting. However,
none of these conditions are severe enough to preclude him
from performing any occupation.” (Doc. 9, p. 21).
August 8, 2017, the BAC denied Hatton's appeal. In its
decision letter, the BAC noted that it credited the
functional capacity evaluation of Williams over the
evaluation by Medlock because Williams's evaluation was
more thorough due to the “detailed and well supported
testing” conducted by Williams. (Doc. 9, p. 22). The
BAC noted that Hatton's decline noted in Medlock's
evaluation may also have been the result of Hatton's
cardiac condition, which presented after Hatton filed his
disability claim in 2014. Id. The BAC also found
that Williams's testing appeared in line with the
findings of two reviewing physicians. Id. The BAC
also considered the vocational employability assessment and
explained that Hatton was not disabled under the plan because
the base salaries of the occupations found to be suitable for
Hatton's skills and functional capacity were equal to or
greater than Hatton's base wages when he left Trane.
Id. On July 16, 2018, Hatton filed this action
asking the Court to overturn the BAC's decision. (Doc.
plaintiff in an ERISA action has exhausted his administrative
remedies under a benefits plan, a reviewing court's
function is to examine the record that was before the
administrator of the plan at the time the claim was denied.
Farfalla v. Mut. of Omaha Ins. Co., 324 F.3d 971,
974-75 (8th Cir. 2003); Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.
v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). When a plan gives
the administrator discretionary authority to determine a
participant's eligibility for benefits, the Court reviews
the decision for abuse of discretion, and will defer to the
determination made by the administrator or fiduciary unless
such determination is arbitrary and capricious.
Firestone, 489 U.S. at 115; McGee v. Reliance
Standard Life Ins. Co., 360 F.3d 921, 924 (8th Cir.
2004); Schatz v. Mut. of Omaha Ins. Co., 220 F.3d
944, 946 n.4 (8th Cir. 2000) (“[R]eview for an
‘abuse of discretion' or for being ‘arbitrary
and capricious' is a distinction without a difference . .
. .”). The Court considers five factors to determine
whether the decision was supported by a reasonable
explanation or was instead an abuse of discretion:
(1) whether the administrator's interpretation is
consistent with the goals of the Plan;
(2) whether the interpretation renders any language in the
plan meaningless or internally inconsistent;
(3) whether the administrator's interpretation conflicts
with the substantive or procedural requirements of the ERISA
(4) whether the administrator interpreted the relevant terms