Justia ERISA Opinion Summaries
Ramos v. Banner Health
A class of employees who participated in Banner Health, Inc.’s 401(k) defined contribution savings plan accused Banner and other plan fiduciaries of breaching duties owed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). A district court agreed in part, concluding that Banner had breached its fiduciary duty to plan participants by failing to monitor its recordkeeping service agreement with Fidelity Management Trust Company: this failure to monitor resulted in years of overpayment to Fidelity and corresponding losses to plan participants. During the bench trial, the employees’ expert witness testified the plan participants had incurred over $19 million in losses stemming from the breach. But having determined the expert evidence on losses was not reliable, the court fashioned its own measure of damages for the breach. Also, despite finding that Banner breached its fiduciary duty, the district court entered judgment for Banner on several of the class’s other claims: the court found that Banner’s breach of duty did not warrant injunctive relief and that Banner had not engaged in a “prohibited transaction” with Fidelity as defined by ERISA. The class appealed, arguing the district court adopted an improper method for calculating damages and prejudgment interest, abused its discretion by denying injunctive relief, and erred in entering judgment for Banner on the prohibited transaction claim. Finding no abuse of discretion or other reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court in each instance. View "Ramos v. Banner Health" on Justia Law
Wong v. Flynn-Kerper
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal, based on the doctrine of equitable estoppel, of an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) action in which the Trustee of the Anaplex Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) sought equitable and declaratory relief against the holder of a promissory note from Anaplex.The panel joined the Fourth Circuit in barring the defensive use of equitable estoppel when estopping the plaintiff would contradict an ERISA plan's express terms. The panel deferred to ERISA's focus on what a plan provides, consistent with US Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen, 569 U.S. 88, 100 (2013). The panel explained that equitable estoppel has no place at any stage in this litigation, and the district court erred in dismissing the case based on it.The panel held that, in addition to satisfying the traditional equitable estoppel requirements, a party bringing a federal equitable estoppel claim in the ERISA context must also allege: (1) extraordinary circumstances; (2) that the provisions of the plan at issue were ambiguous such that reasonable persons could disagree as to their meaning or effect; and (3) that the representations made about the plan were an interpretation of the plan, not an amendment or modification of the plan. Furthermore, a party cannot maintain a federal equitable estoppel claim against a trust fund where recovery on the claim would contradict written plan provisions. In this case, allowing the holder to assert her equitable estoppel claim against the trustee would contradict the clear terms of the ESOP. The panel remanded. View "Wong v. Flynn-Kerper" on Justia Law
Baker v. Iron Workers Local 25
The Labor Management Relations Act forbids employers from directly giving money to unions, 29 U.S.C. 186(a); an exception allows an employer and a union to operate a trust fund for the benefit of employees. Section 186(c)(5)(B) requires the trust agreement to provide that an arbitrator will resolve any “deadlock on the administration of such fund.” Several construction companies and one union established a trust fund to subsidize employee vacations. Six trustees oversaw the fund, which is a tax-exempt entity under ERISA 26 U.S.C. 501(c)(9). A disagreement arose over whether the trust needed to amend a tax return. Three trustees, those selected by the companies, filed suit, seeking authority to amend the tax return. The three union-appointed trustees intervened, arguing that the dispute belongs in arbitration.The court agreed and dismissed the complaint. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While ERISA plan participants or beneficiaries may sue for a breach of statutory fiduciary duty in federal court without exhausting internal remedial procedures, this complaint did not allege a breach of fiduciary duties but rather alleges that the employer trustees’ own fiduciary duties compelled them to file the action to maintain the trust’s compliance with tax laws. These claims were “not directly adversarial to the [union trustees] or to the Fund.” View "Baker v. Iron Workers Local 25" on Justia Law
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Ass’n v. California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program
The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001, et seq., does not preempt a California law that creates a state-managed individual retirement account (IRA) program.The Ninth Circuit concluded that CalSavers is not an ERISA plan because it is established and maintained by the State, not employers; it does not require employers to operate their own ERISA plans; and it does not have an impermissible reference to or connection with ERISA. Furthermore, CalSavers does not interfere with ERISA's core purposes. Therefore, ERISA does not preclude California's endeavor to encourage personal retirement savings by requiring employers who do not offer retirement plans to participate in CalSavers. The panel affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Ass'n v. California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program" on Justia Law
Fisher v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to PBGC, concluding that 29 C.F.R. 4044.4(b) is valid and that the PBGC Appeals Board reasonably applied section 4044.4(b) to deny appellant's lumpsum request. The court also concluded that, because fiduciaries must act in accordance with the terms of plan documents only "insofar as such documents and instruments are consistent with the provisions of" the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), Penn Traffic fulfilled its fiduciary duties by denying appellant's request in compliance with section 4044.4(b). Therefore, the court need not address appellant's contentions that Penn Traffic's handling of his lumpsum request was inconsistent with the Plan's terms. View "Fisher v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp." on Justia Law
Wilson v. Craver
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's action against defendants, two Edison Executives, alleging breach of fiduciary duty under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) in managing the plan's assets. Defendants are fiduciaries of Edison's 401(k) employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Plaintiff claimed that Defendant Fiduciary Boada breached his duty of prudence by allowing employees to continue to invest in Edison stock after he learned that the Edison stock was artificially inflated.The panel concluded that the district court properly determined that plaintiff failed plausibly to plead that a prudent fiduciary in defendants' position could not have concluded that plaintiff's proposed alternative action of issuing a corrective disclosure would do more harm than good. In this case, the second amended complaint relies solely on general economic theories and is devoid of context-specific allegations explaining why an earlier disclosure was so clearly beneficial that a prudent fiduciary could not conclude that disclosure would be more likely to harm the fund than to help it. Accordingly, plaintiff failed to state a claim for breach of the duty of prudence consistent with the standard announced in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 573 U.S. 409, 428 (2014). Consequently, the derivative monitoring claim alleged against Defendant Craver also fails. View "Wilson v. Craver" on Justia Law
Bafford v. Northrop Grumman Corp.
Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that Hewitt, the Committee, and Northrop had breached their fiduciary duties and that the Committee failed to provide required Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) benefit information. In the alternative, plaintiffs asserted state-law professional negligence and negligent misrepresentation claims against Hewitt. Plaintiffs' claims stemmed from statements mailed by Hewitt that grossly overestimated the benefits to which each plaintiff would be entitled. The district court granted defendants' motion to dismiss.The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' fiduciary duty claims against Northrop and the Committee, concluding that Northrop and the Committee did not breach a fiduciary duty by failing to ensure that Hewitt correctly calculated plaintiffs' benefits. The panel agreed with the First Circuit and held that calculation of pension benefits is a ministerial function that does not have a fiduciary duty attached to it. Likewise, plaintiffs' claim that Hewitt breached its fiduciary duties failed. The panel also concluded that plaintiffs did not adequately plead that they submitted written requests for pension benefit statements as required to state a claim for violation of 29 U.S.C. 1025(a)(1)(B)(ii). However, because plaintiffs could plead facts adequate to allege they made written requests, the panel directed the district court to permit plaintiffs to file an amended complaint. Finally, the panel concluded that state-law professional negligence and negligent misrepresentation claims are not preempted by ERISA because they do not have a "reference to or connection with" an ERISA plan. Accordingly, the panel vacated the dismissal of the state-law claims and remanded for further proceedings. View "Bafford v. Northrop Grumman Corp." on Justia Law
Sullivan v. Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston
The Eleventh Circuit held that the Employment Retirement Income Security Act's (ERISA) fee-shifting provision, 29 U.S.C. 1132(g)(1), cannot support a fee award against a party's counsel. The court explained that the function of this statute is not to sanction attorney misconduct. Rather, that role belongs to other provisions, such as 28 U.S.C. 1927 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11(c).In this case, the district court relied exclusively on Section 1132(g)(1) when awarding fees. Therefore, the court reversed and vacated the district court's fee award. The court did not address Liberty Life's argument that the district court should have imposed fees against Theresa E. Peer's counsel, Paul Sullivan. On remand, the district court may consider whether a fee award is appropriate against Peer under ERISA or against Peer or Sullivan under another statute, rule, or the district court's inherent authority. View "Sullivan v. Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston" on Justia Law
Bernard v. Kansas City Life Insurance Co.
After plaintiff admitted to using fentanyl at work, he was terminated from his position as a certified nurse anesthetist at Mid-Missouri. Plaintiff then submitted claims for short- and long-term disability benefits to Kansas City Life, which issued disability insurance policies to Mid-Missouri as part of its employee benefit plan.The Eighth Circuit affirmed the the district court's conclusion that Kansas City Life had abused its discretion in denying plaintiff benefits under the Employee Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The court concluded that Kansas City Life's denial of benefits is not supported by substantial evidence where reasonable minds could not reconcile Kansas City Life's position that plaintiff was unable to safely administer anesthesia on October 6, 2017, with its position that he had safely administered anesthesia while under the influence of fentanyl during the time period between his relapse and termination. Therefore, the evidence that plaintiff made no medical errors and did not seek treatment until after he was terminated, as well as the fact that the record does not disclose his exact date of disability, could not support Kansas City Life's conclusion that plaintiff was not disabled before his insurance coverage ended. View "Bernard v. Kansas City Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law
Boyer v. Schneider Electric Holdings, Inc.
Plaintiff sought life and accidental death benefits under her brother's insurance plan after he died in a single-vehicle crash. Unum Life paid plaintiff life insurance benefits, but denied her claim for accidental death benefits. Plaintiff filed suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment for plaintiff, concluding that the administrator's decision was supported by substantial evidence. The court explained that the evidence is sufficient to support a reasonable finding that the brother's speeding and improper passing contributed to the crash; the crime exclusion applies to "accidental losses;" and Unum Life's interpretation of the "crime" exclusion was reasonable because the brother's conduct constituted a crime under Missouri law. In this case, the brother was driving more than twice the legal speed limit and passing vehicles in a no-passing zone on a two-lane road in icy road conditions. Furthermore, Missouri's classification of improper passing and speeding as misdemeanor offenses reinforces the reasonableness of Unum Life's determination. View "Boyer v. Schneider Electric Holdings, Inc." on Justia Law