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Guerra-Delgado v. Popular, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 18, 2014

ALFREDO GUERRA-DELGADO, ET AL., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
POPULAR, INC., ET AL., Defendants, Appellees

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. José Antonio Fusté, U.S. District Judge.

William Santiago Sastre for appellants.

Oreste R. Ramos, with whom Pietrantoni Mendez & Alvarez LLC was on brief, for appellees.

Before Howard, Selya, and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 777

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

After appellant Alfredo Guerra-Delgado (" Guerra" ) retired from appellee Banco Popular de Puerto Rico (" BPPR" ), BPPR undertook a final calculation of his pension, which yielded monthly payments substantially lower than earlier estimates had suggested. Guerra brought claims seeking the higher amount under § 502(a)(1) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (" ERISA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1), a theory of estoppel, and Puerto Rico contract law. The district court dismissed the ERISA and contract claims, holding that Guerra could not be awarded relief under the terms of BPPR's retirement plan and that ERISA preempted the commonwealth law claims. After

Page 778

discovery, the district court granted summary judgment against Guerra on the estoppel claim, holding that estoppel could not apply where the terms of the benefits plan were unambiguous. Agreeing with the district court's conclusions, we affirm.

I.

Appellant Guerra was an employee of Banco de Ponce for eight years, from 1980 to 1988.[1] Although Banco de Ponce merged with BPPR in 1990, Banco de Ponce was not affiliated with BPPR during Guerra's tenure there. Guerra resigned from Banco de Ponce in February 1988 to work for First Bank of Puerto Rico, where he remained until he moved to Florida in May 1995 to help his son through difficult times. Guerra lived in Florida until 1997, and during that period he worked three jobs part-time: as an independent contractor for First Bank of Puerto Rico, as a bus driver for the Osceola school district, and as a driver at Hertz Car Rental.

In late 1996, a former colleague, Angel René Guzmá n, recruited Guerra to work for the New York branch of BPPR. Guerra alleges that BPPR, through Guzmá n, agreed as part of its recruiting effort to credit seventeen years of work for other firms toward his pension at BPPR. In other words, his pension would reflect prior work at two different banks, as well as his other jobs in Florida, beginning with his employment for Banco de Ponce in February 1980. Guzmá n denies making such a promise.

Guerra began working for BPPR in New York in April 1997. In January 1999, Guerra and many other BPPR employees in New York became employees of a new entity, Banco Popular North America, Inc. (" BPNA" ). Although Guerra retained the same employee ID number, worked in the same office, and performed the same work, he was technically an employee of BPNA from January 1999 until he transferred to a BPPR office in Puerto Rico a year later, in January 2000.

Guerra remained in BPPR's Puerto Rico office until his retirement in 2009. At the beginning of his tenure there, Guerra asked if the period from 1980 onwards was still being credited toward his pension. In June 2000, a BPPR Benefits Department representative, Madeline Mundo, sent Guerra a letter on BPPR letterhead, which stated: " Having been an employee of [BPNA] from February 1, 1980, until December 31, 1998, these years of service will be considered as years of credit for purposes of the Banco Popular Pension Plan. From January 1, 1999, until January 2, 2000 [i.e., the period Guerra worked in New York for the new BPNA entity], these years of service will be considered as years of eligibility for purposes of the . . . Plan." Guerra read this letter as confirmation that his employer would continue to honor the alleged 1997 promise. Notwithstanding the contents of the Mundo letter, it is uncontested that Guerra did not, in fact, work for BPNA from February 1, 1980 through December 31, 1998.

Every year from 2003 to 2007, Guerra received an annual " Total Compensation Report" from BPPR. These reports contained estimates of Guerra's pension benefits, calculated on the basis of a 1980 start date. Each report contained a disclaimer that the estimates did not govern the final benefits calculation, and ...


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