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Rashiel Salem Enterprises LLC v. Bunton

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

July 12, 2013

Rashiel Salem Enterprises LLC, Plaintiff,
Cheryl A. Bunton, et al., Defendants.


NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.

Before the Court is Southern California Edison Company Retirement Plan's Motion for Summary Judgment on Its Counterclaims. In its Motion, Southern California Edison Company Retirement Plan (the Retirement Plan) argues it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on its counterclaims against Lela Cameron, John Doe Cameron, and Mohave Estate Management Office (Mohave). For the following reasons, the Retirement Plan's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

I. Background

This case began when Mohave brought claims against Cheryl Bunton and Southern California Edison Company (SCE), an electrical utility in California, relating to the pension benefits of Lela Cameron. The Retirement Plan is a defined-benefit ERISA plan that provides benefits to retirees from SCE. Mohave, as the guardian and conservator for Ms. Cameron, sought declaratory relief and reinstatement of Ms. Cameron's pension benefits on the grounds that SCE wrongly terminated those benefits after Ms. Bunton caused the benefit to be liquidated. In response, the Retirement Plan brought counterclaims against Ms. Cameron and Mohave, claiming that Ms. Cameron received two errant payments from the Retirement Plan and failed to return those funds.

Ms. Cameron, an employee of SCE, qualified for long term disability benefits from SCE after she became unable to work due to Huntington Disease in 1997. As part of her employment with SCE, Ms. Cameron also participated in SCE's Retirement Plan. As part of the Retirement Plan, Ms. Cameron had the option of receiving monthly retirement benefits or a lump sum payment of all her earned benefits after she separated from SCE's service.

As her disease progressed, Ms. Cameron became unable to care for herself. Her father, Daniel Frasier, became her caregiver and remained so until he passed away in 2009. Ms. Bunton served as Mr. Frasier's housekeeper and assisted with Ms. Cameron's care. Around the time of Mr. Frasier's death, Ms. Bunton began to refer to herself as Ms. Cameron's trustee. In September 2009, Ms. Bunton arranged for Ms. Cameron to execute estate planning documents and assumed control of all of Ms. Cameron's finances. Ms. Cameron by then lacked the capacity to manage her finances herself.

At some point after September 3, 2009, Ms. Bunton submitted a power-of-attorney document to SCE in which she purported to assume power-of-attorney on behalf of Ms. Cameron. The parties vigorously dispute whether Ms. Cameron had the capacity to execute a valid power-of-attorney in favor of Ms. Bunton at that time, but, for reasons discussed below, that dispute is immaterial to this summary judgment motion. In November, 2009, Ms. Bunton contacted the Retirement Plan to request a lump-sum distribution of Ms. Cameron's pension benefits, purportedly acting under the power of attorney for Ms. Cameron.

Ms. Cameron's retirement had accrued a lump-sum value of $120, 138.40 in November 2009. That amount was subject to mandatory federal income tax withholding in the amount of $24, 027.68. As a result, the correct lump-sum payment to Ms. Cameron would have been $96, 110.72. In response to Ms. Bunton's request, on February 1, 2010, the Retirement Plan deposited $120, 138.40 into Ms. Cameron's bank account, which was at that time controlled by Ms. Bunton. Due to the Retirement Plan's processing error, the federal income tax was not withheld, and the Retirement Plan overpaid $24, 027.68 on Ms. Cameron's account. On March 1, 2010, the Retirement Plan deposited another $96, 548.86 into the bank account. That entire amount was deposited because of another of the Retirement Plan's processing errors. In total, the Retirement Plan's errors resulted in its $120, 576.54 overpayment on Ms. Cameron's retirement plan.

Ms. Bunton subsequently used Ms. Cameron's bank account to write checks, make debit card purchases, and take ATM withdraws for Ms. Bunton's personal spending in a total amount of at least $138, 298.36. In November 2011, Ms. Bunton pled guilty to one count of theft in Mohave County Superior Court and was sentenced to six years in prison. It total, Ms. Bunton stole more than $200, 000 worth of Ms. Cameron's property and money while Ms. Cameron was incapacitated.

II. Legal Standard

The Retirement Plan moves for summary judgment on its counterclaim that Lela Cameron must return the overpayment the Retirement Plan made in its lump-sum disbursement of Ms. Cameron's pension benefits. A party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The movant has the burden of showing the absence of genuine issues of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). At the summary judgment stage, the nonmoving party's evidence is presumed true, and all inferences from the evidence are drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Rohr v. Salt River Project Agric. Imp. & Power Dist., 555 F.3d 850, 864 (9th Cir. 2009).

III. Analysis

A. Equitable Relief Under ERISA

Ordinarily, a party in the Retirement Plan's position would file a claim for breach of contract and seek relief in the form of a judgment for money damages. Under § 502(a)(3) of ERISA, however, a plan fiduciary such as the Retirement Plan can seek only "equitable relief" from a plan participant such as Ms. Cameron. Bilyeu v. Morgan Stanley Long Term Disability Plan, 683 F.3d 1083, 1091 (9th Cir. 2012) cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 1242 (2013); 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3)(B). Section 502(a)(3) of ERISA authorizes a civil action: "by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary (A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates... the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (i) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of... the terms of the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). The Retirement Plan may therefore seek equitable relief under § 502(a)(3) to enforce the terms of the plan. As a result, under ERISA, the Retirement Plan may only seek "the ...

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