Justia ERISA Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
by
In December 2019, Coastline JX Holdings LLC (Coastline), assignee of a judgment creditor’s interest in a money judgment entered against Stephen Bennett, served on Seamount Financial Group, Inc. (Seamount) a notice of levy on Bennett’s assets in an individual retirement account and a profit-sharing plan. After the trial court ordered Seamount to liquidate Bennett’s interest in both assets and turn them over to the levying officer to be delivered to Coastline, Bennett moved for reconsideration of the trial court’s order under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1008. In his motion, Bennett first argued to the trial court that the profit-sharing plan was protected from levy because it qualified as a plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). He also filed a motion to tax costs. The trial court denied Bennett’s motion, but informed the parties that, under its inherent authority, it would reconsider its prior order regarding the distribution of the profit-sharing plan only (not the individual retirement account) because the court previously had not considered the implications of it being an ERISA-compliant plan. After a hearing on the court’s own motion, the court reversed its prior decision and concluded the profit-sharing plan was exempt from levy due to preemption by ERISA. The court ordered Coastline to reimburse the profit-sharing plan any funds it had received under the court’s prior order. The trial court also denied Bennett’s motion to tax costs and the request for attorney fees that was included in his supplemental briefing. Coastline and Bennett each appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order and rejected each of the parties’ arguments on appeal. View "Coastline JX Holdings LLC v. Bennett" on Justia Law

by
The Cintas “defined contribution” retirement plan has a “menu” of investment options in which each participant can invest. Each Plan participant maintains an individual account, the value of which is based on the amount contributed, market performance, and associated fees. Under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1102(a)(1), the Plan’s fiduciaries have the duty of loyalty—managing the plan for the best interests of its participants and beneficiaries—and a duty of prudence— managing the plan with the care and skill of a prudent person acting under like circumstances. Plaintiffs, two Plan participants, brought a putative class action, contending that Cintas breached both duties. Plaintiffs had entered into multiple employment agreements with Cintas; all contained similar arbitration provisions and a provision preventing class actions.The district court declined to compel arbitration, reasoning that the action was brought on behalf of the Plan, so that it was irrelevant that the two Plaintiffs had consented to arbitration through their employment agreements–the Plan itself did not consent. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The weight of authority and the nature of ERISA section 502(a)(2) claims suggest that these claims belong to the Plan, not to individual plaintiffs. The actions of Cintas and the other defendants do not support a conclusion that the plan has consented to arbitration. View "Hawkins v. Cintas Corp." on Justia Law

by
Through a bankruptcy proceeding, Bristol became the successor-in-interest to Haven, an accredited mental-health and substance-abuse treatment center that regularly serviced patients insured by Cigna. Bristol alleged that Cigna violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and state law by denying Haven’s claims for reimbursement for services provided. Haven was out-of-network for Cigna’s insureds. The district court dismissed Bristol’s ERISA claim, as an assignee of a healthcare provider, for lack of derivative standing, or lack of authority to bring a claim under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B).The Ninth Circuit reversed. Under ERISA, a non-participant health provider cannot bring claims for benefits on its own behalf but must do so derivatively, relying on its patients’ assignments of their benefits claims. Other assignees also may have derivative standing if extending standing would align with the goal of ERISA. Refusing to allow derivative standing for Bristol would create serious perverse incentives that would undermine the goal of ERISA. Denying derivative standing to health care providers would harm participants or beneficiaries because it would discourage providers from becoming assignees and possibly from helping beneficiaries who were unable to pay up-front. View "Bristol SL Holdings, Inc. v. Cigna Health and Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

by
Simpson's insurer, the Fund, paid Simpson’s medical costs ($16,225) arising from a car accident. Simpson hired the Firm to represent her in a personal injury suit. The Fund maintained a right of subrogation and reimbursement. Simpson settled her suit for $30,000. After depositing the settlement funds in a trust account, the Firm paid $9,817.33 to Simpson, $1,000.82 to other lienholders, and $10,152.67 to its own operating account for fees and expenses, offering the Fund $9,029.18. The Fund sued under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) section 502(a)(3), claiming an equitable lien of $16,225. The Firm issued a $9,029.18 check to the Fund, exhausting the settlement funds.The district court issued a TRO requiring the Firm to maintain $7,497.99 in its operating account. The Firm argued that the Fund sought a legal remedy because the Firm no longer possessed the settlement funds; ERISA 502(a)(3) only authorizes equitable remedies. The Fund argued that it sought an equitable remedy because the settlement funds were in the Firm’s possession pursuant to the TRO and cited the lowest intermediate balance test: a defendant fully dissipates a plaintiff’s claimed funds (by spending money from the commingled account to purchase untraceable items) only if the balance in the commingled account dipped to $0 between the date the defendant commingled the funds and the date the plaintiff asserted its right to the funds. The district court granted the Firm summary judgment, reasoning that the Firm dissipated the settlement funds before the TRO issued; the Fund could not point to specific recoverable funds held by the Firm and sought a legal remedy. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that no issues had been preserved for review. View "Sheet Metal Workers' Health & Welfare Fund of North Carolina v. Law Office of Michael A. DeMayo, LLP" on Justia Law

by
Card was diagnosed with “chronic lymphocytic leukemia,” which can cause fatigue. Card alleges her worsening fatigue left her unable to perform her job as a night-shift nurse. She applied for disability benefits under an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) plan administered by Principal, which denied her requests for short-term, long-term, and total disability benefits. Card sued. The district court granted Principal summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to Principal for further proceedings. Principal granted Card short-term disability benefits but requested additional information for her other claims. Card then filed motions in the district court, seeking attorney’s fees and asking the court to reopen the case because Principal had not reached a benefits decision for her other claims within the 45 days allegedly required by ERISA . The district court issued a “virtual order” on its docket, denying the motions for lack of jurisdiction.The Sixth Circuit first held that it had jurisdiction to review that order then vacated and remanded to the district court. A district court retains jurisdiction over a beneficiary’s ERISA suit during the remand. "As in every other ERISA case in this procedural posture," the prior decision remanded to the district for it to retain jurisdiction while Principal engaged in the new benefits determination. View "Card v. Principal Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

by
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

by
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

by
The Ninth Circuit denied a petition for a writ of mandamus challenging the district court's order transferring an action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) from the Northern District of California to Minnesota federal court pursuant to a forum selection clause in a retirement plan. The panel held that mandamus relief was not warranted because the district court did not clearly err in transferring the case. The panel explained that courts are in near universal agreement: ERISA does not bar forum selection clauses. Therefore, the panel found no reason to disagree with their well-reasoned conclusion. In this case, the plan contained a forum selection clause and the district court properly enforced that clause. View "In re Becker" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs, five former employees of CB&I who worked as laborers on a construction project in Louisiana, quit before the project ended and thus made them ineligible to receive the Project Completion Incentive under the term of that plan. Plaintiffs filed suit in state court seeking the bonus for the period they did work, arguing that making such employees ineligible for bonuses amounts to an illegal wage forfeiture agreement under the Louisiana Wage Payment Act. LA. STAT.ANN. 23:631, 23:632, 23:634. After removal to federal court, the district court concluded that the incentive program was an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) plan because it required ongoing discretion and administration in determining whether a qualifying termination took place.The Fifth Circuit concluded that the employee benefit at issue—a bonus for completing the project—is not an employee benefit plan under ERISA. The court explained that the plan involves a single and simple payment; determining eligibility might require the exercise of some discretion, but not much; and the plan lacks the complexity and longevity that result in the type of "ongoing administrative scheme" ERISA covers. Therefore, there is no federal jurisdiction over this action. The court vacated and remanded for the case to be returned to state court. View "Atkins v. CB&I, LLC" on Justia Law

by
Participants in Georgetown University retirement plans sued the University and individual plan fiduciaries, seeking to bring individual and representative class action claims for breach of fiduciary duty under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) 29 U.S.C. 1001–1461. They alleged that the plans paid excessive fees for record-keeping services and included investment options that consistently underperformed their benchmarks. In January 2019, the district court dismissed the complaint without prejudice, citing Article III standing as to some aspects of plan management, such as the inclusion of investment options neither plaintiff had selected. Regarding the duty of prudence, the court found that the excessive recordkeeping fees allegations provided no factual support for the assertion that the plans should pay only $35/year per participant. In May, the court denied as untimely their motion for leave to file an amended complaint.The D.C. Circuit vacated. Dismissal of a complaint without prejudice is generally not a final appealable order. Exceptions that apply where the record clearly indicates that the district court has separated itself from the case do not apply to this case. The January Order did not enter a final, appealable judgment; the district court erred when considering the motion to amend the complaint in refusing to apply the Rule 15(a)(2) standard, rather than the more restrictive standards under Rules 59(e) and 60(b). View "Wilcox v. Georgetown University" on Justia Law