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The ex-wife of a former New England Patriots player can move forward with her claims to recover pension benefits from her late ex-husband ( Garcia-Tatupu v. Bert Bell/Peter Rozelle NFL Player Ret. Plan , 2017 BL 126893, D. Mass., No. 1:16-cv-11131-DPW, 4/18/17 ).
The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Players Retirement Plan’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit was denied April 18 by a federal judge in Massachusetts. Judge Douglas P. Woodlock ruled that Linnea Garcia-Tatupu pleaded sufficient facts to state a possible claim for relief under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
Garcia-Tatupu seeks to collect pension benefits of her late ex-husband Mosiula F. Tatupu, who played for the Patriots from 1978 to 1990 and died in 2010.
Whether benefits are owed to former spouses of participants in pension plans is a common issue in employee benefit litigation. Woodlock’s decision is noteworthy because of his discussion of posthumous qualified domestic relations orders. Such orders are entered as part of divorce proceedings to divide retirement benefits and are later amended after the participant’s death.
The couple divorced in 1997, and Garcia-Tatupu’s divorce decree provided her with a portion of Tatupu’s pension benefits, she claims. However, it wasn’t until 2012, two years after her ex-husband’s death, that a state court entered an order directing that a 2011 domestic relations order be applied retroactively to 1997. The plan denied her benefit claim on the grounds that the 2011 order wasn’t appropriate because it provided “increased benefits.”
Woodlock in his decision said he would resolve the parties’ dispute through dispositive motions and that to do so, he would need to look at Garcia-Tatupu’s divorce decree to determine whether it contemplated these pension benefits. He seemed inclined to follow a 2005 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that held that an ex-wife could obtain a revised state court order that met ERISA requirements to enforce the pension benefits conferred upon her by the divorce decree.
McCormick & Maitland represents Garcia-Tatupu. Groom Law Group Chartered represents the plan.
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