Justia ERISA Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Plaintiff is a former federal employee and participant in a health-insurance plan (“Plan”) that is governed by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Act (“FEHBA”). The Plan stems from a contract between the federal Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and certain of its affiliates (together, “Blue Cross”). Blue Cross administers the Plan under OPM’s supervision. Plaintiff suffered from cancer, and she asked Blue Cross whether the Plan would cover the proton therapy that her physicians recommended. Blue Cross told her the Plan did not cover that treatment. So Plaintiff chose to receive a different type of radiation treatment, one that the Plan did cover. The second-choice treatment eliminated cancer, but it also caused devastating side effects. Plaintiff then sued OPM and Blue Cross, claiming that the Plan actually does cover proton therapy. As against OPM, she seeks the “benefits” that she wanted but did not receive, as well as an injunction directing OPM to compel Blue Cross to reform its internal processes by, among other things, covering proton therapy in the Plan going forward. As against Blue Cross, she seeks monetary damages under Texas common law. The district court dismissed Plaintiff’s suit.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that neither the advance process nor the proton-therapy guideline poses an immediate threat of injury, so injunctive relief is therefore unavailable. Further, the court found that FEHBA preempts Plaintiff’s common-law claims against Blue Cross. Accordingly, the court held that no relief is available under the relevant statutory and regulatory regime. View "Gonzalez v. Blue Cross Blue Shield" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs brought a class action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), arguing that Defendant Colgate-Palmolive Co. miscalculated residual annuities based on an erroneous interpretation of its retirement income plan and improperly used a pre-retirement mortality discount to calculate residual annuities, thereby working an impermissible forfeiture of benefits under ERISA. The district court granted summary judgment to Plaintiffs on these claims. Colgate appealed that order and the final judgment of the district court.   The Second Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the text of the RAA is unambiguous and requires Colgate to calculate a member's residual annuity by subtracting the AE of LS from that member's winning annuity under Appendix C Section 2(b). Further, the court wrote that Colgate's "same-benefit" argument does not disturb our conclusion that the RAA's language is unambiguous. Because "unambiguous language in an ERISA plan must be interpreted and enforced in accordance with its plain meaning," the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the class Plaintiffs as to Error 1. View "McCutcheon v. Colgate-Palmolive Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, current and former employees of RingCentral, participated in RingCentral’s employee welfare benefits plan. The plan participated in the “Tech Benefits Program” administered by Sequoia Benefits and Insurance Services, LLC, a management and insurance brokerage company. The Tech Benefits Program was a MEWA that pooled assets from employer-sponsored plans into a trust fund for the purpose of obtaining insurance benefits for employees at large-group rates. Plaintiffs filed this putative class action on behalf of the RingCentral plan and other Tech Benefits Program participants, asserting that Sequoia owed fiduciary duties to the plan under ERISA because Sequoia allegedly exercised control over plan assets through its operation of the Tech Benefits Program. Plaintiffs alleged that Sequoia violated its fiduciary duties by receiving and retaining commission payments from insurers, which Plaintiffs regarded as kickbacks, and by negotiating allegedly excessive administrative fees with insurers, leading to higher commissions for Sequoia.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal for lack of Article III standing. The court held that Plaintiffs failed to establish Article III standing as to either of their two theories of injury. The panel held, as to the out-of-pocket-injury theory, Plaintiffs failed to establish the injury in fact required for Article III standing because their allegations did not demonstrate that they paid higher contributions because of Sequoia’s allegedly wrongful conduct. And Plaintiffs failed to plead the third element, that their injury would likely be redressed by judicial relief. View "RACHAEL WINSOR, ET AL V. SEQUOIA BENEFITS & INSURANCE, ET AL" on Justia Law

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Appellant American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 3 (“Appellant”) filed suit against the State of Maryland alleging that the State breached a statutorily formed contract with current state employees to provide them with certain prescription drug benefits upon retirement. The district court agreed that Maryland law created a contract, it held that the contract was unilateral in nature and that the promised benefits do not vest until an employee retires with sufficient years of service. The district court determined that the current employees represented by Appellant had no vested contractual right to the retirement prescription drug benefits and dismissed the complaint.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. However, the court did so because it found that the statutory language does not create a contract with state employees. The court explained that in reviewing the language of the statutes at issue, it concluded that they do not create a contract binding upon the State. While Section 2-508 does “entitle” retirees to a subsidy, it does not include any unmistakable contract language. Rather, it only “entitles” a retiree to the “same State subsidy allowed a State employee.” The court explained that nothing in Sections 2-508 or 2-509.1 leaves the court with an unmistakably “clear indication that the legislature intended to bind itself contractually.” Therefore, “all doubts must be resolved in favor of the continuance of the power” of the state legislature to modify or repeal enactments of a previous legislature. View "AFSCME Maryland Council 3 v. State of Maryland" on Justia Law

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The employers agreed that for the duration of two collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), they would make pension contributions on behalf of covered employees to the Pension Fund. Both CBAs contained “evergreen clauses” that extended them a year at a time until either party provided timely written notice expressing an “intention to terminate.” Both were to expire in January 2019. After the window for timely notice of intention to terminate on that date, the employers and the union signed new CBAs requiring pension contributions to a different fund beginning in February 2019. The employers notified the Fund that they were ceasing contributions, relying on letters the union sent in November 2018.The Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of the Fund’s lawsuit. Those letters did not express the union’s intent to terminate the existing CBAs, so as to satisfy the evergreen clause's termination procedure. The letters did not mention termination. They noted the date that the CBAs would expire and expressed a desire to meet to negotiate new agreements; neither of these points communicated an intent to terminate the existing agreements. In the context of an evergreen clause, expiration and termination are distinct concepts. A desire to negotiate a new contract is quite consistent with a desire to leave the existing agreement in place until a new deal is reached. The old agreements renewed under the evergreen clauses; the employers remained obligated to contribute to the Fund for one more year. View "Central States Southeast & Southwest Areas Pension Fund v. Zenith Logistics, Inc." on Justia Law

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Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company denied Plaintiff’s claim for long-term disability benefits after concluding that she was not “Totally Disabled” as defined by her disability insurance plan. Plaintiff brought an under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. Section 1132(a)(1)(B), arguing that the denial of benefits violated that Act. After conducting a bench trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52, the district court awarded judgment to Plaintiff. Reliance appealed, arguing that courts in the Fourth Circuit are required to resolve ERISA denial-of-benefits cases via summary judgment and that the district court erred in dispensing with this case through a bench trial. Reliance also argued that this Court must review the district court’s legal conclusions.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court first held that because the plan at issue here did not require objective proof of disability, the court rejected Reliance’s contention that Plaintiff’s claim fails for the lack of such evidence. Further, the court wrote that the record supports the district court’s determination that Plaintiff’s disability was not limited to a “specific locale.” Accordingly, the court agreed that Plaintiff was “totally disabled” under the terms of the plan. View "Anita Tekmen v. Reliance Standard Life Ins." on Justia Law

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A collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) required RoadSafe Traffic Systems, Inc. to contribute to four employee benefits Funds. The Funds sued for unpaid contributions, alleging that the CBA unambiguously requires contributions for all hours worked by covered employees, regardless of the type of work performed. RoadSafe countered that the CBA unambiguously requires contributions only for construction and highway work. The district court granted summary judgment to RoadSafe. The issue on appeal was whether the CBA obligates RoadSafe to make contributions to the Funds for all or only specified types of work   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that by its plain language, Article V of the CBA limits RoadSafe’s contribution obligations to “Building Construction” and “Highway/Heavy” categories of work. Because work coded as NON or “shop hours” is not within the definitions of either “Building Construction” or “Highway/Heavy,” the CBA does not require RoadSafe to make contributions for the coded work. Therefore, the district court properly granted summary judgment to RoadSafe. View "Cons. Laborers Welfare Fund v. RoadSafe Traffic Systems, Inc." on Justia Law

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BP Corporation North America Inc. (“BP America”) a Defendant-Appellee in this action, acquired Standard Oil of Ohio (“Sohio). BP America converted the Sohio Plan into a new plan called the BP America Retirement Plan (the “ARP”). The ARP was also a defined benefit plan that retained the formula used by the Sohio Plan to calculate its members’ pension distributions. BP America converted the ARP into the BP Retirement Accumulation Plan (the “RAP,” the conversion from the ARP to the RAP as the “Conversion,” and the date of the Conversion as the “Conversion Date”), the other Defendant-Appellee in this action. Plaintiffs-Appellees, two Sohio Legacy Employees, (the “Guenther Plaintiffs”) filed a class action complaint against the RAP and BP America.   Four years after the Guenther Plaintiffs filed their original complaint, Movant-Appellant, along with 276 other individuals (the “Press Plaintiffs”) moved to intervene in the Guenther Action “for the purpose of objecting” to the magistrate judge’s recommendation. Press Plaintiffs contend that the certified class in the Guenther Action inadequately represents their interests, and therefore, they have a right to intervene in this case.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling denying the intervention. The court held that the Press Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that their interests diverge from those of the Guenther Plaintiffs in any meaningful way. Further, the Press Plaintiffs did not identify a unique interest of their own, they are unable to specify how a determination in the Guenther Action could have a future detrimental preclusive effect. The court wrote it is satisfied that the Press Plaintiffs will be adequately represented. View "Guenther v. BP Retr Accumulation" on Justia Law

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Principal Life Insurance Company (Principal) offers a product called the Principal Fixed Income Option (PFIO), a stable value contract, to employer-sponsored 401(k) plans. Plaintiff on behalf of himself and a class of plan participants who deposited money into the PFIO, sued Principal under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), claiming that it (1) breached its fiduciary duty of loyalty by setting a low-interest rate for participants and (2) engaged in a prohibited transaction by using the PFIO contract to make money for itself. The district court granted summary judgment to Principal after concluding that it was not a fiduciary. The Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that Principal was a fiduciary. On remand, the district court entered judgment in favor of Principal on both claims after a bench trial. Plaintiff challenges the court’s judgment.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court agreed with the district court that Principal and the participants share an interest because a guaranteed CCR that is too high threatens the long-term sustainability of the guarantees of the PFIO, which is detrimental to the interest of the participants. The question then becomes whether the court clearly erred by finding that Principal set the CCR in the participants’ interests. The court held that the district court did not clearly err by finding that the deducts were reasonable and set by Principal in the participants’ interest of paying a reasonable amount for the PFIO’s administration.  Finally, the court affirmed the district court’s judgment in favor of Principal on the prohibited transaction claim because it is exempted from liability for receiving reasonable compensation. View "Frederick Rozo v. Principal Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff made contributions to a 401(k) plan during her employment at Honeywell International Inc. She originally designated her husband, Defendant, as the sole beneficiary in the event of her death. The parties later divorced and in the marital termination agreement (MTA), they agreed that Plaintiff will be awarded, free and clear of any claim on the part of Defendant’s, all of the parties’ right, title, and interest in and to the Honeywell 401(k) Savings and Ownership Plan. Plaintiff submitted a change-of-beneficiary form to Honeywell. She, however, did not comply with a requirement.   Plaintiff died in 2019 and Honeywell paid the benefits to Defendant. The personal representative of Plaintiff’s estate sued Honeywell for breach of fiduciary duty, and Defendant for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and civil theft. The Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Honeywell and reversed summary judgment for Defendant on the breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims.   The court explained that even if the Plan gave the administrator discretion to accept Plaintiff’s defective Form, it is not an abuse of discretion to act in accordance with plan documents. ERISA directs administrators to “discharge [their] duties . . . in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan.” Thus, because Honeywell followed plan documents in rejecting Plaintiff’s defective change-of-beneficiary form and distributing benefits, the breach of fiduciary duty claim fails. Further, even if the MTA were ambiguous, a reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff and Defendant intended for the MTA to waive his beneficiary interest in the 401(k). View "Robert Gelschus v. Clifford Hogen" on Justia Law