Justia ERISA Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
In re: Conco, Inc.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s order in Conco’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy, interpreting Conco’s Confirmed Plan to prohibit the sale of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)-held Conco stock (Equity Interests) and enjoining any such sale through December 31, 2018. The creditor’s committee had agreed to support the Plan, which provided both defined distributions and contingent distributions, to be funded by the operation of the Conco’s business, to continue through December 31, 2018. The Plan guaranteed the creditors a higher recovery than if the business were sold. ESOP participants sued Conco, its Board of Directors, the ESOP, and ESOP Trustees (ERISA Litigation) claiming breach of fiduciary duties by not evaluating and responding to offers by to purchase the Equity Security Interests. The Bankruptcy Court found, and the Sixth Circuit agreed, that the four corners of the Confirmed Plan, and the creditors’ abandonment of an objection under the absolute priority rule of 11 U.S.C. 1129(b)1 to the ESOP’s retention of the Equity Interests, evidenced an intent for the Equity Interests not to be sold through December 31, 2018. View "In re: Conco, Inc." on Justia Law
Reese v. CNH Industrial, N.V.
Plaintiffs, CNH employees who retired between 1994 and 2004, filed suit in 2004, seeking a declaration that they were entitled to lifetime healthcare benefits without paying premiums, based on collective-bargaining agreements (CBAs), negotiated by UAW beginning in 1971. The case was remanded to the district court twice. While the second remand was pending, the Supreme Court (Tackett, 2015) abrogated Sixth Circuit precedent creating an inference in favor of employees in collective-bargaining cases. Initially, the district court ruled in favor of CNH, noting that it was “[c]onstrained by the Supreme Court’s decision” in Tackett. On reconsideration, the district court found not only that plaintiffs’ rights were vested even after Tackett, but also that CNH’s proposed changes were unreasonable. The Sixth Circuit affirmed as to vesting, noting that the CBA is ambiguous and extrinsic evidence indicated that parties intended for the healthcare benefits to vest for life. The court remanded because the court failed to properly weigh the costs and the benefits of the proposed plan, as previously instructed. “To find ambiguity in this case, partially from the silence as to the parties’ intentions, does not offend the Supreme Court’s mandate from Tackett that we not infer vesting from silence.” View "Reese v. CNH Industrial, N.V." on Justia Law
International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America v. Kelsey-Hayes Co.
Plaintiffs, Medicare-eligible retirees from Kelsey-Hayes' Detroit automotive plant, retired before the plant’s 2001 closing and were members of a UAW bargaining unit. The final (1998) collective bargaining agreement (CBA) provided for comprehensive healthcare for retirees. A Plant Closing Agreement stated that it did not extinguish pension or retiree healthcare obligations. Kelsey-Hayes continued to provide retiree healthcare coverage for 10 years, consistent with the 1998 CBA. In 2011, Kelsey-Hayes announced that it was replacing the retirees’ group-insurance plan with company-funded health reimbursement accounts (HRAs) from which retirees could purchase individual Medicare supplemental insurance plans. In 2012, Kelsey-Hayes contributed $15,000 to each participant’s HRA; in 2013 and 2014, it contributed $4,300 per year. Plaintiffs sued under the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. 185, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1001. The Sixth Circuit stayed litigation pending the Supreme Court’s 2015 Tackett decision. The district court then granted the plaintiff-retirees partial summary judgment and ordered defendants to reinstate the group insurance plan. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, distinguishing the language and history of the Kelsey-Hayes CBAs from the language at issue in Tackett. Tackett explicitly overruled Sixth Circuit precedent and held that a presumption toward lifetime benefits violates basic principles of contract interpretation; however, pre-Tackett courts’ interpretation of language that parties subsequently agree to maintain can inform interpretation of their intent at the time they entered into the CBA. View "International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America v. Kelsey-Hayes Co." on Justia Law
Saumer v. Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc.
The economic health of Cliffs, a publicly-traded iron-ore and coal-mining company, depends on Chinese economic growth. In 2011, Chinese construction projects drove iron-ore prices to all-time highs. Cliffs financed the purchase of Bloom Lake Mine in Quebec. Projecting that the mine would increase cash-flow, Cliffs upped its stock dividend to double the S&P 500 average. In 2012, a global demand slump halved the price of iron ore. The mine became a major liability. In 2013, Cliffs stock performed worse than any other company in the S&P 500. Cliffs lost 95% of its value between 2011 and 2015. Plaintiffs are Cliffs employees who participated in the company’s 401(k) defined-contribution plan, which allowed participants to invest in 28 mutual funds, including an array of target-date, stock, and bond funds, or an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) that invested solely in Cliffs stock. If the employee failed to choose an investment option, the fiduciary directed contributions into a money-market fund. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs’ class action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1), which claimed that the plan’s fiduciaries imprudently retained Cliffs stock as an investment option. The court stated that any change in policy with respect to diversification and ESOPs must come from Congress. View "Saumer v. Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc." on Justia Law
Hitchcock v. Cumberland University 403(b) DC Plan
Plaintiffs were Cumberland University employees, participating in its 403(b) defined contribution pension plan. In 2009, the University adopted a five percent matching contribution. In 2014, the University amended the Plan to replace the five percent match: the University would determine the amount of its matching contribution on a yearly basis, retroactive to 2013. The University announced that its matching contribution for the 2013–14 and 2014-2015 years would be zero percent. The Plan stated: An Employer cannot amend the Plan to take away or reduce protected benefits under the Plan and that “all Plan Participants shall be entitled to . . . [o]btain, upon request to the Employer, copies of documents governing the operations of the Plan.” As of January 2017, the University had not produced a summary plan description after the 2009 Summary Plan Description, despite repeated requests, nor did it provide formal written notice of the amendment within a reasonable period. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint, alleging violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1001, by wrongful denial of benefits, cutbacks, failure to provide notice, and breach of fiduciary duty. The district court dismissed without prejudice for failure to administratively exhaust the claims. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding, as a matter of first impression, that plan participants need not exhaust administrative remedies before proceeding to federal court when they assert statutory violations under ERISA. View "Hitchcock v. Cumberland University 403(b) DC Plan" on Justia Law
Patterson v. Chrysler Group, LLC
Plaintiff and Henry married in 1987 and divorced in 1993. The Divorce Judgment granted Plaintiff one-half of the pension benefits Henry had accrued during the marriage, with full rights of survivorship. Henry was forbidden from choosing a payment option that would deprive Plaintiff of these benefits. Henry worked for Chrysler from 1965 to 1992, and began receiving retirement benefits in 1994, under a “Lifetime Annuity Without Surviving Spouse” option, in violation of the Judgment. Plaintiff’s attorney submitted the Judgment to the Plan administrator, who stated that the Judgment lacked information required by 29 U.S.C. 1056(d)(3)(C) to qualify as a “qualified domestic relations order,” so it could not override ERISA’s anti-alienation provision. Plaintiff did not contact the Plan again until after Henry had died in 2007. The Plan denied her benefits request, noting “the participant does not have a remaining benefit to be assigned.” For six years, Plaintiff unsuccessfully attempted to have the Plan qualify the Judgment. The Plan noted that changing the type of benefit was impermissible under plan the rules. In 2014, plaintiff obtained a nunc pro tunc order, correcting the Judgment. The Plan again denied benefits. Plaintiff filed suit under ERISA. The district court granted Plaintiff summary judgment, reasoning that, to the extent Plaintiff’s claim was based on the 2014, denial of benefits based on the Nunc Pro Tunc Order, it was timely and that the Order relates back to 1993. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding the claim untimely. View "Patterson v. Chrysler Group, LLC" on Justia Law
Milby v. MCMC, LLC
As a nurse at the University of Louisville Hospital, Milby was covered by a long-term disability insurance policy. In 2011, Milby sought and received disability benefits for 17 months. During a subsequent eligibility review, the plan engaged MCMC, a third-party reviewer. MCMC opined that the “opinions of [Milby’s treating physicians] are not supported by the available medical documentation” and that she could perform sustained full-time work without restrictions as of 2/22/2013. Neither MCMC nor its agent was licensed to practice medicine in Kentucky. The plan terminated Milby’s benefits effective February 2013. Milby’s suit against her disability insurance provider remains pending. She also filed suit alleging negligence per se against MCMC for practicing medicine in Kentucky without appropriate licenses. MCMC removed the case to federal court, claiming complete preemption under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The trial court denied Milby’s motion for remand to state court and dismissed. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The state-law claim fits in the category of claims that are completely preempted by ERISA: it is in essence about the denial of benefits under an ERISA plan and the defendant does not owe an independent duty to the plaintiff because the defendants were not practicing medicine under the specified Kentucky law. View "Milby v. MCMC, LLC" on Justia Law
Soehnlen v. Fleet Owners Insurance Fund
Fleet Owners Fund is a multi-employer “welfare benefit plan” under the Employee Retirement Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001, and a “group health plan” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), 26 U.S.C. 5000A. Superior Dairy contracted with Fleet for employee medical insurance; the Participation Agreement incorporated by reference a 2002 Agreement. In a purported class action, Superior and its employee alleged that, before entering into the Agreement, it received assurances from Fleet Owners and plan trustees, that the plan would comply in all respects with federal law, including ERISA and the ACA. Plaintiffs claim that, notwithstanding the ACA’s statutory requirement that all group health plans eliminate per-participant and per-beneficiary pecuniary caps for both annual and lifetime benefits, the plan maintains such restrictions and that Superior purchased supplemental health insurance benefits to fully cover its employees. Fleet argued that the plan is exempt from such requirements as a “grandfathered” plan. The district court dismissed the seven-count complaint. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims under ERISA and ACA, having failed to allege concrete injury, and did not allege specific false statements. View "Soehnlen v. Fleet Owners Insurance Fund" on Justia Law
Deschamps v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc.
Before accepting a transfer to a Bridgestone facility in North Carolina, Deschamps expressed concern about losing pension credit for his 10 years of employment with Bridgestone in Canada. After receiving assurances from Bridgestone’s management team that he would keep his pension credit, Deschamps accepted the position. For several years, Deschamps received written materials confirming that his date of service for pension purposes would be August 1983. He turned down employment with a competitor at a higher salary because of the purportedly higher pension benefits he would receive at Bridgestone. In 2010, Deschamps discovered that Bridgestone had changed his service date to August 1993, the date he began working at the American plant. After failed attempts to appeal this change through Bridgestone’s internal procedures, Deschamps filed suit, alleging equitable estoppel, breach of fiduciary duty, and an anti-cutback violation of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. 1054(g). The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Deschamps on all three claims. The text of the plan “is at worst ambiguous, but at best, favors Deschamps’s argument that he was a covered employee in 1983” and, as a result of the change in the interpretation of this provision that excluded foreign employees from being classified as covered employees, Deschamps’s benefits were decreased. View "Deschamps v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc." on Justia Law
Okuno v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co.
Okuno was working as an art director with a clothing company when she developed symptoms including vertigo, extreme headaches, memory loss, and abdominal pain. Though she had previously been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, Okuno contends that these maladies had been “stable and well-controlled” for years and did not prevent her from working. After visits to multiple specialists, numerous tests, and two visits to the emergency room, Okuno was eventually diagnosed with narcolepsy, Crohn’s disease, and Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease. After diagnosis, she struggled with negative drug interactions and the side effects associated with her many treatments. Unable to continue working, Okuno went on short-term disability and applied for benefits under her employer’s long-term disability plan, issued and administrated by Reliance. Reliance denied the application on the basis that depression and anxiety contributed to Okuno’s disabling conditions. After exhausting her administrative appeals, Okuno brought a claim under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B). The district court found in favor of Reliance on cross-motions for judgment on the administrative record. The Sixth Circuit reversed, reasoning that her physical ailments, including Crohn’s disease, narcolepsy, and Sjogren’s syndrome, are disabling when considered apart from any mental component. View "Okuno v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co." on Justia Law