Thinking ESOPs: Courts Desperately Need Contextual Clues in Disputes Over Enforceability of Arbitration Provisions

Enforcement of an ERISA plan’s arbitration provision has become a hotly litigated issue. Plaintiffs and courts often raise two objections to arbitration provisions in ERISA plans, including ESOPs. The first is whether participants or the plan itself consented to the arbitration provision. The second is whether class-action waiver language, which requires individualized arbitration, is enforceable under ERISA.

There have been several important ERISA arbitration decisions in recent years, including many involving ESOPs. Interestingly, these decisions suggest that courts are struggling with the same statutory-interpretation problems that courts struggle with when addressing a number of issues raised by ESOP litigation. Many key ERISA provisions are difficult, if not impossible, to interpret based solely on their express language. This is a real problem in ESOP litigation because many disputes turn on a court’s interpretation of the opaque ERISA provisions that are implicated by the disputes.

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Fifth Circuit Clarifies Standard for Remanding ERISA Dispute to Plan Administrator

In Newsom v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., the Fifth Circuit clarified when it is appropriate for a district court to remand an ERISA dispute to a plan administrator for development of a merits record. 26 F.4th 329 (5th Cir. 2022). James Newsom suffered from a variety of maladies, and in September 2017 his employer reduced his schedule to 32 hours per week. In October 2017, Newsom’s schedule again was reduced to 28 hours per week, and he stopped working entirely on January 30, 2018. After Newsom filed a claim for disability benefits, Reliance Standard, the claims administrator, determined that his date of disability was January 30, 2018, and since he was working less than 30 hours per week at that time, he was not a full-time employee and did not qualify for long-term disability coverage. After Newsom sued, the district court determined that Newsom’s date of disability was October 2017, that Newsom was a full-time employee as of that date, and that he was eligible for long-term disability coverage. Accordingly, and without further analysis, the district court awarded Newson long-term disability benefits.

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