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Court interprets ambiguous "widow's benefit" in favor of pension plan

Judge McKeague, a Republican-appointee to the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote the majority opinion in Margaret Lipker v. AK Steel Corporation.  Mrs. Lipker had won a judgment in the District Court that AK's pension owed her a little over $400 dollars in monthly widow's benefits.  AK's pension administrator argued that she was entitled to only $140.00 after her husband passed away, based on its interpretation of the retirement plan language. 

Lipker's husband worked for AK for 39 years before retiring in 1999. His pension was $1386 dollars per month.  On his death in 2008, Mrs. Lipker disagreed with how the pension people calculated her survival benefit.  She sued, the Court agreed with her, citing a prior similar case in Ohio, and AK appealed.  Judge McKeague ruled that both the Ohio Court and the District Court in Lipker had not properly interpreted the "plain meaning" of the pension language--which by law is to be interpreted as a typical employee would have understood it. 

The Sixth Circuit pointed out that a recent decision of the (Republican-dominated) U.S. Supreme Court had held that Summary Plan Descriptions do not control the benefits owed to an employee, meaning that an omission in the SPD did not determine the outcome in Lipker's case.  Looking at the precise language of the Plan document, the Sixth Circuit majority ruled that AK was enttilted to a credit for Lipker's earned social security benefit in addition to her spousal benefit, resulting in the minimal monthly benefit award.
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