In Hawkins v. Cintas Corp., No. 21-3156, __ F.4th __, 2022 WL 1236954 (6th Cir. Apr. 27, 2022), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that an arbitration clause contained in certain individual employment agreements may be insufficient to compel arbitration of putative class action claims asserted under ERISA § 502(a)(2).
The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to review a significant decision of the Second Circuit which (1) clarified the scope of California’s statutory ban on discretionary clauses in life and disability insurance contracts, and (2) clarified the meaning of a “full and fair review” under the version of ERISA’s claims-procedure regulation applicable to all claims…
Though there are many legal complexities that can arise in a typical ERISA lawsuit, one thing that is typically not in dispute is whether there is an ERISA Plan at issue. Pension plans, 401(k) plans, health plans, and group insurance plans are all easy to spot, categorize and confirm as ERISA plans. There are outliers, to be sure, like when the plan is established or maintained by a possibly exempt employer (like a religious organization, community college, or Native American tribe). Or when the plan allows employees to purchase individual insurance policies at a discount. Or when the dispute involves a severance plan, as is demonstrated by Atkins v. CB&I, L.L.C., No. 20-30004, 2021 WL 1085807 (5th Cir. Mar. 22, 2021).
In Atkins, the defendant construction company established a Project Completion Incentive Plan (“PCIP”) that would pay eligible employees a bonus of 5% of their earnings while they worked on a particular construction project, if they stayed on the project until their work was completed. The plaintiffs, who acknowledged that they were not eligible for bonuses because they quit before their work on the project ended, sued in Louisiana state court, arguing that the PCIP involved a wage forfeiture that was illegal under Louisiana law. The employer removed the case to federal court on the grounds of ERISA complete preemption, and the district court agreed that ERISA governed. As the Fifth Circuit noted, “[t]hat jurisdictional determination also resolved the merits” because, if ERISA governs, “then everyone agrees the Plaintiffs do not have a claim” because ERISA preempts Louisiana law, and because the plaintiffs “are not eligible for the bonus under the terms of the plan.”
The Fifth Circuit held that the PCIP was not an ERISA plan.
Continue Reading When is a Severance Plan NOT an ERISA Plan
“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.).
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