“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

Disputes over the meaning of a word or phrase in an insured benefit plan almost always end up with the litigants feeling like they have gone through the looking glass to a place where the words you thought you understood all your life suddenly mean something entirely different.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is Carlile v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., — F.3d –, 2021 WL 671582 (10th Cir, Feb. 22, 2021), where the dispute revolved around whether Mr. Carlile was an “active, Full-time Employee” when he became disabled.

Mr. Carlile had worked for the disability plan sponsor for about four years when he was given notice in March 2016, that he was being laid off as part of a reduction in force effective June 20, 2016. Accompanying the notice was a lump-sum payment of his wages for the notice period, and the confirmation that he no longer needed to come into work. Apparently, though, he continued to visit the office “at his convenience” until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer on May 31, 2016. Apparently his “last day of work” (whatever that means) was June 7, 2016. He filed a claim for LTD benefits, which Reliance Standard denied, finding that Mr. Carlile’s participation in the disability plan had terminated before June 7, because he was no longer an “active, Full-time Employee.”

Follow us through the looking glass as we watch the Tenth Circuit explore: why the meaning of “active, Full-time Employee” is not influenced at all by the plan’s definitions of “Actively at Work” or “Active Work;” why the court’s own prior decision defining “actively at work full time” in a similar context supported Reliance only “at first glance”; and why determining how much an employee worked during his “regular work week” apparently does not require proof of how much the employee ever really worked at all. At the end of the journey, it turns out that “active” really means nothing, because an “active, Full-time Employee” is exactly the same as a “Full-time Employee.”
Continue Reading Tenth Circuit Decides That An “Active, Full-time Employee” Is Entirely Different Than an Employee Who is “Actively at Work”

The Ninth Circuit recently issued two decisions in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp.: the first overrules the decision in Amaro v. Continental Can. Co., 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984) (Dorman, – F.3d –, No. 18-15281, 2019 WL 3926990 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019) (slip op.) (“Dorman I”)); and the second concludes that an individual’s ERISA claim may be subject to the plan’s arbitration provision (Dorman, — F. App’x –, No. 18-15281, 2019 WL 3939644 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019) (slip op.) (“Dorman II”)).

Dorman, a former Schwab employee, filed a putative class action under ERISA §502(a)(2) and (3), alleging that defendants violated ERISA and breached their fiduciary duties by including poorly performing Schwab-affiliated investment funds in the defined contribution 401(k) retirement plan to generate fees for Schwab. Dorman I, 2019 WL 3926990 at *1-*2.

In December 2014, the plan was amended to require that “[a]ny claim, dispute or breach arising out of or in any way related to the plan shall be settled by binding arbitration.” Id., 2019 WL 3926990 at *2.
Continue Reading Irreconcilable Differences: In Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., Ninth Circuit Overrules 35-Year-Old Authority; Concludes ERISA Claims Subject to Mandatory Arbitration.

In Vest v. Resolute FP US, Inc., 905 F.3d 985 (6th Cir. 2018), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of a claim by the beneficiary of a deceased employee that the employer breached its fiduciary duty under ERISA §502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. §1132(a)(3) by failing to notify the decedent of his right to port or convert his group life insurance coverage to an individual life insurance policy after he ceased active employment.
Continue Reading Sixth Circuit Finds No Fiduciary Duty To Give Notice Of Conversion/Portability Rights On Termination Of Employment

The Second Circuit recently held that alleged misrepresentations by a “ministerial” plan representative about plan benefits will not support a claim for breach of fiduciary duty if the SPD clearly provides “complete and accurate” information, but might support a claim for breach of fiduciary duty if the SPD does not.  In re DeRogatis, 16-977-cv, 16-3549-cv (2d Cir. Sept. 14, 2018) (slip op.).

Petitioner’s Claim

Emily DeRogatis brought two lawsuits concerning benefits under her deceased husband’s pension and health plans. She claimed that two plan employees provided inaccurate information about her husband’s eligibility for, and the amount of, survivor benefits payable under the pension plan, and the impact of early retirement on health benefits under the welfare plan.
Continue Reading Second Circuit Speaks On When Ministerial Acts Can Breach a Fiduciary Duty

In Munro v. University of Southern California, No. 17-55550, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 20522 (9th Cir. July 24, 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that employees alleging an ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claim against their employer based on the employer’s administration of defined-contribution plans may not be compelled to arbitrate their collective claims under the terms of the arbitration clause in their employment contracts because their claims were brought on behalf of the plans and not on their own behalf.

The lawsuit was brought by nine current and former USC employees. The employees alleged that USC breached its fiduciary duty under ERISA in administering two defined-contribution plans – the USC Retirement Savings Program and the USC Tax-Deferred Annuity Plan (the “Plans”). The employees sought financial and equitable remedies to benefit the Plans and all affected participants and beneficiaries, including “a determination as to the method of calculating losses, removal of breaching fiduciaries, a full accounting of Plan losses, reformation of the Plans, and an order regarding appropriate future investments.”
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Holds That Employees’ ERISA Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim Against Their Employer is Not Subject to the Mandatory Arbitration Clause in Their Employment Contracts

The Colorado Supreme Court’s decisions upholding the dismissal of claims against two separate disability plans under ERISA may be under review by the Supreme Court, following submission of the joint petition for a writ of certiorari filed in Olivar v. Public Serv. Employee Credit Union Long Term Disability Plan and Burton v. Colorado Access a/k/a Colorado Access Long Term Disability Plan, No. 17-1543.
Continue Reading To Sue Or Not To Sue Under ERISA: Circuit Split about Proper Party Defendants and Service of Process May Be Resolved

In Dowdy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 16-15824, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 12648 (9th Cir. May 16, 2018), the Ninth Circuit ruled that an accident plan that covers “accidental injury that is the Direct and Sole Cause of a Covered Loss” really covers many losses that have causes other than the accidental injury. And the court held that an illness does not “contribute to” a loss unless it is a “substantial cause” of the loss. In so holding, the Court: relied on some Congressional policies underlying ERISA while ignoring others; and read language into a Plan that was not there.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit “Interprets” Accident Plan; “Direct and Sole Cause” Doesn’t Mean What It Says

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that New York’s anti-subrogation statute, N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-335(a), applies both to “offsets” for prospective benefit payments and to reimbursements for prior benefit disbursements.  In so holding, the Second Circuit ruled that a Plan’s choice-of-law provisions may not be dispositive of which jurisdiction’s anti-subrogation statute will apply to govern disbursement and/or recovery of that Plan’s assets.

The case, Arnone v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 860 F.3d 97 (2d Cir. 2017), arose after the plaintiff-appellant, Salvatore Arnone, a New York resident, was injured while working in New York at the site of a customer of his employer.   Arnone filed for, and received, disability benefits through an ERISA-governed plan (“Plan”) insured and administered by Aetna.  Arnone also commenced a personal injury action in New York state court against his employer’s customer.  Arnone eventually settled the personal injury suit for a lump-sum payment.
Continue Reading Second Circuit Clarifies New York Anti-Subrogation Law Prohibits Offsets For Settlements; Declares Plan’s Choice-of-Law Provisions May Not Govern Offset And Subrogation Rights

In Okuno v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 836 F.3d 600 (6th Cir. 2016), the court considered the proper interpretation of a mental illness limitation on coverage for disabilities “caused by or contributed to by” mental illness.
Continue Reading Sixth Circuit adopts “but for” test for applying mental illness limitation

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