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Employee Benefits Law Report Reporting on recent trends and developments affecting employee benefits

Tag Archives: ERISA

ERISA preemption is complicated – except when it isn’t

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ERISA Litigation, Other Articles

In light of health care reform, we anticipate ERISA preemption cases to start popping up more frequently. Two recent decisions demonstrate that ERISA preemption is complicated, except when it isn’t. In Liberty Mutual Ins. Co.v Donegan, Second Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs explains the complicated nature of ERISA preemption. This opinion may be helpful for anyone to develop a better understanding of the topic and its history. (Shameless plug alert: you also may want to see the preemption chapter that I edit in ERISA: A Comprehensive Guide.)

Then there is the decision that demonstrates when preemption isn’t complicated.  Seventh


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ESOP Trustee Indemnification Stymied by Arbitrator’s Legally Unsupportable Analysis – Schafer v. Multiband Corp.

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ESOPs, Retirement Plans

I am not a fan of binding arbitration in the context of ERISA plans, and a new Sixth Circuit decision, Schafer v. Multiband Corp., demonstrates why.

Two individuals (Schafer and Block) founded a company. As part of a series of corporate transactions, two employee stock ownership plans (“ESOPs”) were formed. Schafer and Block were appointed as trustees of the ESOPs, and entered into indemnification agreements with mandatory arbitration clauses. While the DOL was investigating its suspicion that the ESOPs had purchased stock at inflated prices, and with knowledge of this, Multiband entered into a purchase agreement to buy the …


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Frommert v. Conkright “Actuarial Heresy” is Back Again

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ERISA Litigation, Retirement Plans

Frommert v. Conkright, the Xerox “actuarial heresy” floor-offset plan case is back. This time, the Second Circuit has ruled that the new interpretation of the plan is unreasonable, and that ERISA’s “notice provisions” were violated.

Stating, “SPDs are central to ERISA,” the Court concluded that the SPD (summary plan description) did not satisfy 29 C.F.R. § 2520.102-3(l) because the SPD did not describe the offset provision in question in more detail. The Court held, “the Plan and its related SPDs violate ERISA’s notice provisions” and “Plaintiffs’ notice claims fall under Section 502(a)(3).” Frommert has been remanded to the district …


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Heimeshoff v. Hartford: Supreme Court Upholds ERISA Plan Document’s Three-Year Statute of Limitations for Benefit Claims

Posted in ERISA Litigation, Retirement Plans

I have been blogging about ERISA basic principles and respect for boundaries, and just got a little help from the U.S. Supreme Court. In Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Company, a unanimous decision, the Court upheld the three-year statute of limitations set forth in the terms of the ERISA benefit plan document. The Court held that while a cause of action does not commence until the plan issues a final denial in the claims appeal process, the plan and its participants can agree to commence the limitation period before that time (here, at the proof of …


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Sixth Circuit 502(a)(3) Windfall in Rochow v. Life Insurance Company of North America — ERISA’s Delicate Balance Goes So Far Off Kilter That I Am Queasy

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ERISA Litigation

When you think about it, balance is really important. It is hard to imagine how we all stand steady on a planet that is rotating on its access and rotating around the sun. The last earthquake I experienced left me queasy afterward, and that is how I feel after reading a new decision. Curses (or thank you?) to Brian Hall, editor of our sister blog, employerlawreport.com, for forwarding.

Within days of writing the Dudenhoeffer v. Fifth Third Bank blog about a threat to ERISA’s delicate balance and importance of boundaries, we have yet another Sixth Circuit decision that blazes …


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Dudenhoeffer v. Fifth Third Bank at the U.S. Supreme Court: DOL Brief and the ESOP Sponsor / Fiduciary Boundary Dispute

Posted in ERISA Litigation, ESOPs

The DOL has filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dudenhoeffer v. Fifth Third Bank employee stock ownership plan (“ESOP”) dispute that made me think about Boundaries, a book about the importance of establishing boundaries, and compelling respect for those boundaries. In designing ERISA, Congress forged a delicate balance between protecting benefit plans and encouraging employers to provide those benefit plans. The U.S. Supreme Court reminded us in CIGNA v. Amara that this delicate balance includes carefully distinguishing the roles of plan sponsors and fiduciaries, even when one entity (e.g., the employer) wears both hats. The …


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First Circuit to Potential Business Acquirers: Buyer Beware…of Underfunded Pension Liabilities

Posted in Benefits Issues Related to Mergers and Acquisitions, ERISA Litigation

We frequently encounter employers who are excited to purchase an underperforming company with the belief that it can make that company profitable.  While we as ERISA counsel never want to rain on anyone’s parade, we always encourage these employers to do their due diligence with respect to the company’s employee benefits plans.  The last thing an acquirer wants is to learn that it is responsible for a previously unknown pension liability of the acquired entity.  Careful planning can help minimize the risk of such liability.

A recent First Circuit decision involving a private equity fund’s investment in a portfolio company …


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U.S. Supreme Court decision: U.S. Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen

Posted in ERISA Litigation

The United States Supreme Court issued an opinion today in an ERISA case regarding the breadth of Section 502(a)(3) relief, and the common-fund doctrine. While the decision was unanimous on the primary issues, the Court surprised us with a 5-to-4 split on a secondary issue. Overall, the decision in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen is favorable for employers sponsoring health care plans. The decision is also favorable for health care plan participants in the aggregate because it allows for control of plan costs, and premiums, at a critical time when plans are gearing up for 2014 health care reform cost …


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Circuit Decision Reminds Employers: Get Your Ducks in a Row at the EEOC Charge Stage and, for Goodness Sake, Know Your Own Policies

Posted in ERISA Litigation, Health and Welfare Plans

On our sister blog — Employer Law Report Sara Jodka analyzes a recent case — Gaglioti v. Levin Group, Inc. (6th Cir. Dec. 13, 2012), which serves as a good reminder to employers to pin down their reasoning for terminating an employee at the start, and stick to it.

In addition to his other claims, Gaglioti claimed that he was fired in response to the company’s fear of higher health costs for his wife, and that this was discriminatory under ERISA Section 510. Such a claim requires the plaintiff to establish “(1) prohibited employer conduct (2) taken for the …


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How Do You Jack a 401(k) Plan? Santomenno v. John Hancock Life Insurance Company

Posted in ERISA Litigation, Retirement Plans

If you are the fiduciary of an ERISA plan that invested in John Hancock group variable annuity contracts, we hope you have heard that three individuals have filed a lawsuit, claiming to be representing your plan and its participants and beneficiaries. You will not be receiving service of process.

Santomenno v. John Hancock Life Insurance Company is an “excessive fee” case. The Third Circuit held that a participant may bring ERISA Sections 502(a)(2) and (3) claims without first making demand upon the plan trustee who entered into the contract with the defendant, and without joining the plan trustee. The U.S. …


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DOL Sues Insurance Brokerage Firm – Selection of an Annuity Provider for a Terminating Pension Plan is a Fiduciary Duty

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) has sued an insurance brokerage firm, and its owner, for allegedly breaching fiduciary duties associated with purchasing an annuity contract for a terminating defined benefit plan. The complaint alleges that in 2003, the firm entered into an agreement to function as an ERISA fiduciary with respect to the purchase, for a fixed fee of $50,000, with no additional compensation. The firm then purportedly arranged to receive an additional $522,047 of compensation from the insurance company that was eventually selected, and falsified information submitted by other bidders so that this insurance company would appear to be …


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Congress Finally Passes Pension Funding Stabilization Provisions

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, Health and Welfare Plans

Now that the excitement (or was that dread?) surrounding the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of the health care reform legislation has dissipated somewhat, it seems timely to talk a little about pensions. At long last, and after several stalled efforts, meaningful pension funding stabilization legislation was enacted this summer. Congress passed and President Obama signed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (one has to wonder who comes up with these names over in Congress). The act, also known as “MAP-21″, makes important changes to how the interest rates used in defined benefit pension plan …


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Fee Disclosures Are Almost Here — What Should Plan Sponsors Do Now?

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, Health and Welfare Plans, Other Articles

The quickly approaching deadline for written fee disclosures by covered service providers creates new homework for plan sponsors–in the form of enhanced fiduciary review obligations and a suggested need to review (and/or create) written service agreements.

By now folks who work in the tax-qualified retirement industry are well (and perhaps painfully) aware that the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued final service provider fee disclosure regulations early this year.  As the deadline for service providers to provide the required disclosures (i.e., July 1, 2012) draws close, it seems like an opportune time to consider what plan sponsors …


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Fiduciary Litigation Update — Tussey v. ABB, Inc.

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ERISA Litigation

A recent case, Tussey v. ABB, Inc., has received much warranted and unwarranted attention in the Section 401(k) plan arena. In Part 1 of this legal update, we will explain the basics of what happened in this case. In Part 2, we will provide practical aspects of Tussey and deliver specific recommendations on how plan sponsors and fiduciaries can help minimize their potential fiduciary liability.

Part 1: Case Summary

By way of background, this case was one of 15 different cases filed in 2006 by a single law firm. These lawsuits were aimed at large employers alleging …


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United States Supreme Court Declines to Review Sixth Circuit’s Rejection of Class Certification in ERISA Fee Case

Posted in ERISA Litigation, Health and Welfare Plans

The Supreme Court last week denied a writ of certiorari to review the Sixth Circuit’s rejection of class certification for a group of self-insured health plans alleging that their plan administrator charged them improper fees.

In Pipefitters Local 636 Insurance Fund v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, No. 09-2607 (Aug. 12, 2011), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision to certify the class, which would have consisted of between 550 to 875 self-insured plans that entered into Administrative Services Contracts (“ASC’s”) with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (“BCBSM”). These services included payment of …


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ERISA Multi-employer Plan Contingent Liability Indemnification Provision is Not Prohibited by Public Policy

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance

Multi-employer plans have been catching my eye lately. These plans, sometimes called “Taft-Hartley plans,” are maintained pursuant to collective bargaining agreements between unions and various employers. In Shelter Distribution, Inc. v. General Drivers, Warehousemen & Helpers Local Union No. 89, the collective bargaining agreement provided that the union would indemnify the company for any contingent liability under the Multi-employer Pension Plan Amendments Act of 1980. The Sixth Circuit rejected the union’s argument that it is a violation of public policy for a union to indemnify an employer for contingent liability in an ERISA plan. In arriving at its decision, …


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Road to ERISA Class Action Certification Gets Bumpier With Second Circuit Decision in Nationwide Life Ins. Co. v. Haddock

Posted in ERISA Litigation

In Nationwide Life Ins. Co. v. Haddock, No. 10-4237-cv (Feb. 6, 2012), the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s order certifying an ERISA class action in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011). This decision may be a game-changer in the ERISA class action litigation arena, and may ease the pressure on service providers and employers to settle even frivolous claims to avoid the expense of litigation.

The Haddock litigation is substantial in terms of the number of plans involved. This is not the typical ERISA litigation involving …


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Allowing Employee Investment in an ESOP or 401(k) Employer Stock Fund Becomes a Bigger Gamble – Sixth Circuit Decision in Pfeil v. State Street Bank & Trust Co.

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ERISA Litigation, Retirement Plans

The Sixth Circuit has reversed the district court’s dismissal of the GM ERISA stock-drop suit, Pfeil v. State Street Bank & Trust Co., and is allowing the case to proceed.  You may recall that we cautioned fiduciaries of ESOPs and 401(k) plans allowing investment in employer stock to keep an eye on this case because it could be a game-changer. And now it is.

The GM plan offered a number of investment options, one of which was the GM stock fund. The GM stock fund was not a default fund, and participants could change investments on any business day. …


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Estoppel in ERISA: Simple Mistakes Can Lead to Costly Litigation

Posted in ERISA Litigation, Retirement Plans

Plan administrators need to take steps to ensure that the information they provide to plan participants is accurate. Otherwise, plan participants may use this misinformation to bring an estoppel claim.

In civil litigation, defendants have long relied on equitable estoppel as an affirmative defense. The basic elements of an equitable estoppel defense are:

  • a definite misrepresentation of fact made to another person with the expectation that they will rely on it; and
  • reasonable and detrimental reliance on the misrepresentation

See, e.g., Heckler v. Community Health Servs. of Crawford County. The rationale behind this defense is that a party who …


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The Top-Hat Plan Test for Your ERISA Executive Deferred Compensation Plan – Daft v. Advest, Inc.

Posted in ERISA Fiduciary Compliance, ERISA Litigation, Executive Compensation

A recent Sixth Circuit decision provides a tutorial on designing and administering an ERISA executive compensation top-hat plan. In Daft v. Advest, Inc., a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision that the executive compensation plan was an ERISA plan but was not a top-hat plan, on the grounds that the District Court should have remanded the matter to the plan administrator for expansion of the administrative record and its own determination on this issue. This is good news for the employer, and presumably good news for the other plan participants, because an …


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New York’s Same Sex Marriage Law Has Broad Implications for Employee Benefit Plans

Posted in Fringe Benefits, Health and Welfare Plans, Retirement Plans

In a recent blog, we discussed a case that challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which defines marriage for federal law purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman. DOMA was enacted during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Presuming DOMA is deemed constitutional by the courts and is not repealed by Congress (a possibility that appears remote at this point in time), employers theoretically could comply with federal employee benefits laws contained in ERISA by adopting (or maintaining) the DOMA definition of spouse. In turn, the broad preemption doctrine contained in ERISA …


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The Constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act is Questioned in an ERISA Case

Posted in ERISA Litigation

Feeling overwhelmed by ambiguous employee benefits law? You’re not alone. A law firm recently filed an interpleader in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asking the court to decide whether its deceased employee had a “spouse” who was entitled to profit sharing plan benefits. Cozen O’Connor, P.C. v. Tobits. The dollar amount at issue is small ($37,000) relative to the significant amount of attention being paid to this case.

Cozen O’Connor sponsors a profit sharing plan in which its employee, Sarah Farley, participated. When Ms. Farley died, she had no children, and she did not have a beneficiary designation on …


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Join Us in Cleveland or Columbus for One of Our Upcoming Seminars

Posted in ERISA Litigation, Health and Welfare Plans

Would you like to spend a morning outside of the office, enjoying free breakfast and continuing education credit? Here’s your chance! This month, Porter Wright is sponsoring Employment Relations Seminars in both Cleveland and Columbus. I will be speaking about employee benefits developments and best practices at both session, and would love to see you there. Details follow, and we hope you can join us in one of these locations.

“Emerging Issues for Employers” Seminar to Be Held In Cleveland on October 20, 2011

Porter Wright is presenting a seminar on Thursday, October 20, 2011 from 8:30 – 11:45 a.m. …


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The Fiduciary Exception to the Attorney-Client Privilege — “Document Everything” is a Best Practice, Except When It Isn’t

Posted in ERISA Litigation

“Document everything” is often a best practice, but when you are an ERISA plan fiduciary communicating with your attorney, you may need to throw that thinking out the door. In Solis v. Food Employers Labor Relations Association the Fourth Circuit joined the Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits in holding that the attorney-client privilege does not apply as to trust beneficiaries regarding communications between an ERISA plan fiduciary and an attorney when such communications relate to plan administration. The U.S. Supreme Court also recently discussed the fiduciary exception and its rationale in the context of ERISA matters in a recent …


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