The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in Frommert v. Conkright, affirming a district court decision regarding appropriate equitable remedies under ERISA and the amount of prejudgment interest to be applied. The Second Circuit’s views on each of these issues should be of interest to plan fiduciaries as well as practitioners.
This litigation has a long history, dating back to 1999, and has generated many court opinions along the way, from the district court level all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, this is the Second Circuit’s fourth decision in this case. (Readers are likely familiar with this case from the 2010 Supreme Court decision, which addressed the standard of review and held that an honest mistake does not strip a plan administrator of the deference otherwise granted to it to construe plan terms.)
By means of background, the litigation was initiated by Xerox employees who had left the company in the 1980s, received distributions of the retirement benefits they had earned up to that point, and who were subsequently rehired by Xerox. In addition to the issues concerning interpretation of the Plan and related documents, the primary focus of the case was how to account for the employees’ past distributions when calculating their current benefits so as to avoid a “double payment” windfall.
In 2016, the District Court for the Western District of New York issued two decisions that led to the instant appeal. After having been previously directed by the Second Circuit to fashion, in its discretion, an equitable remedy providing appropriate retirement benefits to the rehired employees (referred to as the “New Benefits”), the District Court chose the equitable remedy of reformation and held that the New Benefits should be calculated as if the plaintiffs were newly hired upon their return to Xerox, without any reduction of the benefits to account for prior distributions or any credit for prior years of service. In a second decision later that year, the District Court determined that the plaintiffs were entitled to prejudgment interest at the federal prime rate.
The plaintiffs appealed both decisions. As to the remedy, the plaintiffs argued that the “new hire” remedy fashioned by the District Court was inadequate, and the court should have chosen a calculation of New Benefits that was more favorable to them using either surcharge or estoppel. The Second Circuit was not persuaded. In affirming the District Court’s decision, the Second Circuit noted that each of the equitable approaches considered for calculating the New Benefits were imperfect and even the new hire approach had its flaws. Nevertheless, it found that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in selecting this method. The Second Circuit pointed out that the new hire approach accounted for the time value of money and better balanced the competing interests of the Plan Administrator and the plaintiffs. Having determined there was no abuse of discretion by the District Court, the Second Circuit found it unnecessary to address whether relief would alternatively have been proper pursuant to different equitable remedies such as surcharge or estoppel.
The plaintiffs also argued that the District Court was affirmatively required to interpret the Plan, which might have yielded a higher benefits award. Again, the Second Circuit was not persuaded, finding that this argument ran afoul of one of its prior decisions in the case finding that the District Court need not engage in plan interpretation if it determined an appropriate equitable remedy existed. Citing to Cigna v. Amara, the Second Circuit reaffirmed that district courts generally may avoid interpreting a pension plan and instead fashion equitable remedies for ERISA violations where the plan is “significantly incomplete” and misleads employees, and reformation is among the equitable remedies available.
As to the issue of prejudgment interest, the plaintiffs sought the New York statutory interest rate of nine percent, whereas the Plan Administrator proposed the federal post-judgment interest rate of 0.66 percent. The District Court rejected the state statutory interest rate as too high and the federal rate as too low. It awarded prejudgment interest at the federal prime rate of 3.5 percent, explaining that it struck an appropriate balance and fairly compensated the plaintiffs. Noting that the District Court enjoyed broad discretion as to whether to grant prejudgment interest in the first place and to select a rate, the Second Circuit upheld the decision, finding that the District Court had carefully considered all the relevant factors and thoroughly explained its reasoning for using the federal prime rate.