Unpaid employer contributions cannot be plan assets; debt is dischargeable in bankruptcy

Bos v. Bd. of Trustees, 795 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 2015), involved the owner of a company that participated in a multi-employer pension plan. Because the owner had full control over the company finances, he was personally responsible for making the required contributions. Moreover, he signed a promissory note for some $360,000 in payments that the company had failed to make. Then he filed bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court and the district court held that the debt was not dischargeable, because it was incurred due to the debtor’s “fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement, or larceny.” 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(4). To so hold, the lower courts had concluded that the unpaid contributions were plan assets, and plaintiff’s control over those unpaid contributions made him a fiduciary, which gave rise to non-dischargeability. Continue reading

Preferred provider agreements do not support ERISA claim

In Penn. Chiro. Assoc. v. Independence Hosp. Indem. Plan, Inc., — F.3d –, 2015 WL 5853690 (7th Cir., Oct. 1, 2015), two chiropractors who had signed preferred provider agreements with an insurer claimed that the insurer violated ERISA in determining payments to them. In particular, plaintiffs claimed that the insurer had improperly recouped overpayments without holding a hearing.

As the court described the function of the agreement: “Providers bill the insurer directly and do not know (or care) whether a given patient obtained the coverage as part of an ERISA welfare-benefit plan or through some other means, such as an affinity-group policy or an insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.” Continue reading

SPD can be governing plan document when there is no actual plan

Bd. of Trustees v. Moore, 800 F.3d 214 (6th Cir. 2015), considered whether a summary plan description (SPD) that was the only document containing a subrogation provision was a binding plan document. The Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry (NEI Board) established a health benefits plan, pursuant to two relevant documents. The first was a Trust Agreement between the NEI Board and participating elevator companies, which provided for the establishment and funding of a health benefit plan. The Trust Agreement did not, however, contain any details of a health plan. The NEI Board never created a plan document, but did create an SPD, which details the terms of the plan, and contains a subrogation provision. The Plan’s director of health claims administration testified that the SPD constituted both the plan and the summary of that plan. Continue reading

Third Circuit rules that claim denial letters must disclose contractual limitation period

In Mirza v. Ins. Administrator of Amer., Inc., 800 F.3d 129 (3d Cir. 2015), the court held that the failure to disclose a contractual limitation period in a denial letter precluded enforcement of that limitation, and required application of the most analogous state limitation period.

The district court had ruled, in granting summary judgment for defendant, that a lack of notice was irrelevant, because the plaintiff had knowledge of the limitation, and therefore could not benefit from the equitable tolling that might otherwise flow from a lack of required disclosure. The Third Circuit held “we do not find equitable tolling to be an obstacle, or even relevant, to Mirza’s claim.” Continue reading

Ninth Circuit judge calls for en banc review to overturn Providence Health v. McDowell

In Oregon Teamster Employers Trust v. Hillsboro Garbage Disposal, Inc., 800 F.3d 1151 (9th Cir. 2015), the corporate defendant, Hillsboro Garbage entered into contracts with a union health plan that provided coverage for Hillsboro’s union and non-union employees. Beginning in 2003, the union received contributions for the two individual defendants, who purportedly worked for Hillsboro, but actually were employed by a different company owned by Hillsboro’s owner. The plan covered these defendants until 2011, even though a 2006 audit showed that they were not eligible for coverage. Continue reading

First Circuit Applies Younger abstention doctrine to ERISA preemption claim

In Sirva Relocation, LLC v. Richie, 794 F.3d 185 (1st Cir. 2015), ERISA preemption met federal abstention, and lost. Knight was an employee of Sirva, which had a disability plan insured by Aetna. Knight received 24 months of disability benefits, which were then terminated under a mental illness limitation; he responded by filing a discrimination charge against Sirva and Aetna with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), alleging that Sirva and Aetna paid disparate benefits depending on whether the claimant suffered from a physical or mental impairment. Sirva and Aetna moved to dismiss, arguing ERISA preemption, and, after a three-year wait, MCAD denied the motion without prejudice. Continue reading

Upcoming Amendments to Federal Rules Will Impact ERISA Litigation

On December 1, 2015, barring action by Congress, amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, will take effect. A number of these amendments are intended to fine-tune the discovery process, and they may have an impact on ERISA-related discovery. Of particular note are the increased emphasis on proportionality in discovery; additional requirements in objecting to discovery requests; and a significant limitation on sanctions for loss of electronically stored information. Continue reading

When does ERISA govern a severance plan?

Typically, ERISA litigation starts with a concrete plan, whether it is a retirement plan or an insurance plan. It is much more unusual to have an ERISA dispute turn on whether there is a plan at all. It is still more unusual to have the employee arguing that ERISA governs, and the employer arguing that it does not. But that is the dispute in Okun v. Montefiore Med. Ctr., 793 F.3d 277, 279 (2d Cir. 2015). Continue reading

Third Circuit Rules That Assignment of Plan Benefits Confers Standing to Sue

In North Jersey Brain & Spine Ctr. v. Aetna, Inc., — F.3d –, 2015 WL 5295125 (3d Cir. Sep. 11, 2015), the court addressed the question “whether a patient’s explicit assignment of payment of insurance benefits to her healthcare provider, without direct reference to the right to file suit, is sufficient to give the provider standing to sue for those benefits under ERISA § 502(a)[.]” Continue reading

Where Administrative Appeal Deadline Ends on Saturday, Monday Appeal Is Timely

In LeGras v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 786 F.3d 1233 (9th Cir. 2015), plaintiff’s 180-day period to administratively appeal ended on a Saturday, and he mailed his appeal the following Monday. Aetna denied the appeal as untimely. Plaintiff sued, and the district court had dismissed the claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The 9th Circuit reversed (in a divided decision), stating: “We hold that because the last day of the appeal period fell on a Saturday, neither that day nor Sunday count in the computation of the 180 days. As LeGras mailed his notice of appeal on Monday, it was timely. This method of counting time is widely recognized and furthers the goals and purposes of [ERISA]. … We therefore adopt it as part of ERISA’s federal common law.”