Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Vermont law requires certain entities, including health insurers, to report payments and other information relating to health care claims and services for compilation in a state health care database. Liberty Mutual’s health plan, which provides benefits in all 50 states, is an “employee welfare benefit plan” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA); its third-party administrator, Blue Cross, is subject to the statute. Concerned that the disclosure of confidential information might violate its fiduciary duties, the Plan instructed Blue Cross not to comply and sought a declaration that ERISA preempts application of Vermont’s statute. The Second Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the state. The Supreme Court affirmed. ERISA expressly preempts “any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan,” 29 U.S.C. 1144(a) and, therefore, preempts a state law that has an impermissible “connection with” ERISA plans. ERISA mandates certain oversight systems and other standard procedures; Vermont’s law also governs plan reporting, disclosure, and recordkeeping. Preemption is necessary to prevent multiple jurisdictions from imposing differing, or even parallel, regulations, creating wasteful administrative costs and threatening to subject plans to wide-ranging liability. ERISA’s uniform rule design makes clear that the Secretary of Labor, not the states, decides whether to exempt plans from ERISA reporting requirements or to require ERISA plans to report data such as sought by Vermont. View "Gobeille v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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The stockholders, former employees, who participated in employee stock option plans qualified under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1107(d)(3)(A), sued fiduciaries for breach of the duty of prudence. The plan held the employer’s stock, which dropped in value. On remand from the Supreme Court in 2014, the Ninth Circuit held that the complaint stated a claim. The Supreme Court again reversed and remanded. The Court has previously held that such ERISA fiduciaries are not entitled to a presumption of prudence but are “subject to the same duty of prudence that applies to ERISA fiduciaries in general, except that they need not diversify the fund’s assets,” and that Congress sought to encourage the creation of employee stock-ownership plans. Such fiduciaries confront unique challenges given “the potential for conflict.” To state a claim for breach of the duty of prudence on the basis of inside information, a plaintiff must plausibly allege an alternative action that the defendant could have taken that would have been consistent with the securities laws and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund. Courts must consider whether the fiduciary might have concluded that stopping purchases or publicly disclosing negative information would do more harm than good by causing a drop in the stock price and a concomitant drop in the value of the stock held by the fund. The Ninth Circuit failed to assess whether the complaint plausibly alleged that a prudent fiduciary in the same position “could not have concluded” that the alternative action “would do more harm than good.” View "Amgen Inc. v. Harris" on Justia Law

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Employee benefits plans regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) often contain subrogation clauses requiring participants to reimburse the plan for medical expenses if they later recover money from a third party. Montanile was seriously injured by a drunk driver. His ERISA plan paid more than $120,000 for his medical expenses. Montanile sued the drunk driver, obtaining a $500,000 settlement. The plan administrator sought reimbursement from the settlement. Montanile’s attorney refused and indicated that the funds would be transferred from a trust account to Montanile unless the administrator objected. The administrator did not respond. Montanile received the settlement. Six months later, the administrator sued under ERISA 502(a)(3), which authorizes plan fiduciaries to file suit “to obtain . . . appropriate equitable relief . . . to enforce . . . the plan.” 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(3). The district court rejected Montanile’s arguments, The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that even if Montanile had completely dissipated the fund, the plan was entitled to reimbursement from Montanile’s general assets. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for determination of whether Montanile had dissipated the settlement. When an ERISA-plan participant wholly dissipates a third-party settlement on nontraceable items, the plan fiduciary may not bring suit under section 502(a)(3) to attach the participant’s separate assets. Historical equity practice does not support enforcement of an equitable lien against general assets. View "Montanile v. Bd. of Trs. of Nat'l Elevator Indus. Health Benefit Plan" on Justia Law

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Fifth Third maintains a defined-contribution retirement savings plan for its employees. Participants may direct their contributions into any of several investment options, including an “employee stock ownership plan” (ESOP), which invests primarily in Fifth Third stock. Former participants sued, alleging breach of the fiduciary duty of prudence imposed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(B) in that the defendants should have known—on the basis of both public information and inside information available to Fifth Third officers—that the stock was overpriced and risky. The price of Fifth Third stock fell, reducing plaintiffs’ retirement savings. The district court dismissed; the Sixth Circuit reversed. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. ESOP fiduciaries are not entitled to any special presumption of prudence, but are subject to the same duty that applies to ERISA fiduciaries in general, except that they need not diversify the fund’s assets. There is no requirement that plaintiffs allege that the employer was, for example, on the “brink of collapse.” Where a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized, on the basis of publicly available information, that the market was over- or under-valuing the stock are generally implausible and insufficient to state a claim. To state a claim, a complaint must plausibly allege an alternative action that could have been taken, that would have been legal, and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the fund than to help it. ERISA’s duty of prudence never requires a fiduciary to break the law, so a fiduciary cannot be imprudent for failing to buy or sell in violation of insider trading laws. An allegation that fiduciaries failed to decide, based on negative inside information, to refrain from making additional stock purchases or failed to publicly disclose that information so that the stock would no longer be overvalued, requires courts to consider possible conflicts with complex insider trading and corporate disclosure laws. Courts confronted with such claims must also consider whether the complaint has plausibly alleged that a prudent fiduciary in the same position could not have concluded that stopping purchases or publicly disclosing negative information would do more harm than good to the fund. View "Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer" on Justia Law

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Hartford is the administrator of Wal-Mart’s Group Disability Plan, which is covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The policy requires any suit to recover benefits pursuant to ERISA, 29 U. S. C. 1132(a)(1)(B), to be filed within three years after “proof of loss” is due. Heimeshoff filed a claim for long-term disability benefits. Following mandatory administrative review process, Hartford issued a final denial. Almost three years after the final denial but more than three years after proof of loss was due, Heimeshoff sought judicial review under ERISA. The district court dismissed, reasoning that while ERISA does not provide a statute of limitations, the contractual limitations period was enforceable under state law and Circuit precedent. The Second Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding the limitations provision enforceable. A participant’s ERISA cause of action does not accrue until the plan issues a final denial, but it does not follow that a plan and its participants cannot agree to commence the limitations period before that time. The Court noted that contractual limitations provisions should ordinarily be enforced as written. The period at issue is not unreasonably short and does not undermine ERISA’s two-tiered remedial scheme by causing participants to shortchange the internal review process. If administrators attempt to prevent judicial review by delaying the resolution of claims in bad faith, the penalty for failure to meet regulatory deadlines is immediate access to judicial review for the participant and courts can apply waiver or estoppel. Plans offering appeals beyond what is contemplated in the internal review regulations must agree to toll the limitations provision during that time, 29 CFR 2560.503–1(c)(3)(ii). View "Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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The US Airways health benefits plan paid $66,866 in medical expenses for injuries suffered by McCutchen, its employee, in a car accident caused by a third party. The plan entitled US Airways to reimbursement if McCutchen recovered money from the third party. McCutchen’s attorneys secured $110,000 in payments, and McCutchen received $66,000 after deducting the contingency fee. US Air¬ways demanded reimbursement of the full $66,866 and filed suit under section 502(a)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which authorizes health-plan administrators to bring a civil action “to obtain ... appropriate equitable relief ... to enforce .. the plan.” The district court granted US Airways summary judgment. The Third Circuit vacated, reasoning that equitable doctrines and defenses overrode the reimbursement clause, which would leave McCutchen with less than full payment for his medical bills and give US Airways a windfall. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that the plan’s terms govern. An administrator can use section 502(a)(3) to obtain funds that its beneficiaries promised to turn over. ERISA focuses on what a plan provides; section 502(a)(3) does not authorize “appropriate equitable relief” at large,” but only relief necessary to enforce “the terms of the plan” or the statute. While equitable rules cannot trump a reimbursement provision, they may aid in construing it. The plan is silent on allocation of attorney’s fees, and the common¬fund doctrine provides the appropriate default rule. View "US Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen" on Justia Law

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Respondents, on behalf of beneficiaries of the CIGNA Corporation's ("CIGNA") Pension Plan, challenged the new plan's adoption, claiming that CIGNA's notice of the changes was improper, particularly because the new plan in certain respects provided them with less generous benefits. At issue was whether the district court applied the correct legal standard, namely, a "likely harm" standard, in determining that CIGNA's notice violations caused its employees sufficient injury to warrant legal relief. The Court held that although section 502(a)(1)(B) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. 1022(a), 1024(b), 1054(h), did not give the district court authority to reform CIGNA's plan, relief was authorized by section 502(a)(3), which allowed a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary "to obtain other appropriate relief" to redress violations of ERISA "or the [plan's] terms." The Court also held that, because section 502(a)(3) authorized "appropriate equitable relief" for violations of ERISA, the relevant standard of harm would depend on the equitable theory by which the district court provided relief. Therefore, the Court vacated and remanded for further proceedings.