ERISA Litigation Roundup: The End of Firestone?

The Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act is — yes — another employee benefits bill recently introduced in both the House and Senate (see our other blog post on SECURE 2.0, already passed by the House and which now has a draft bill under review in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee). In addition to seeking to eliminate individual arbitration as a method for resolving benefit denial and breach of fiduciary duty disputes under ERISA, the Employee and Retiree Access to Justice Act also seeks to invalidate discretionary clauses in ERISA-governed benefit plans. The prohibition of such clauses would eliminate deferential judicial review of benefit claim denials in court.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Second Circuit Holds Disability Benefit Claim Must Be Fully Determined on Internal Appeal Review Within 45 Days

On June 7, 2022, the Second Circuit decided McQuillin v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co., No. 21-1514, holding that under ERISA and Department of Labor (DOL) regulations governing administrative benefit claims and appeals (29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1), when considering an appeal of a denied disability claim, a plan administrator must make full determination of benefits. In doing so, the Second Circuit rejected the claim administrator’s argument that reversing the claim denial and remanding the claim internally for reevaluation satisfied the regulations — instead, a decision on whether or not benefits would be awarded was required.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Sixth Circuit Holds ERISA § 502(a)(2) Claims May Not Be Arbitrated Absent Plan Consent

On April 27, 2022, the Sixth Circuit decided Hawkins v. Cintas Corporation, No. 21-3156, holding that claims for breach of fiduciary duty under § 502(a)(2) of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), belong to the plan, and plaintiffs asserting such claims for alleged harm to their individual retirement accounts in defined contribution plans may not be compelled to arbitrate those claims absent the plan’s consent.

Hawkins is a putative class action that participants in an ERISA-governed defined-contribution retirement plan filed on behalf of the plan against Cintas Corporation, their former employer and the plan’s sponsor, under ERISA § 502(a)(2). The plaintiffs alleged that Cintas had breached fiduciary duties it owed to them under ERISA in connection with its administration of the plan, causing losses to the plan.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: SCOTUS Vacates and Remands Seventh Circuit’s 403(b) Decision in Northwestern

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its anticipated ruling in the ERISA fiduciary-breach class action Hughes v. Northwestern. In its unanimous decision, the Court vacated the Seventh Circuit’s dismissal of the case and sent the case back to the lower court for further review. The narrow decision may boost plaintiffs in similar ERISA cases involving challenges to retirement plan fees and investment options, but it also offers hope to defendants.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Florida Federal District Court Compels Individual Arbitration of ERISA Class Action

On January 20, 2022, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida enforced a mandatory arbitration and class action-waiver provision (Arbitration Provision) in an ERISA-governed defined contribution plan, precluding a putative class of former and current plan participants from pursuing breach-of-fiduciary duty claims against plan fiduciaries in federal court. The plaintiffs in Holmes v. Baptist Health South Florida, Inc., 2022 WL 180638, argued that the plan’s Arbitration Provision was unenforceable as it both violated the “effective vindication” doctrine and was unenforceable because the participants did not knowingly agree to it. The court rejected both arguments.

Holmes adds to the flurry of recent decisions on the enforceability of mandatory arbitration and class action-waiver provisions in defined-contribution plans, which have yielded inconsistent results and are still working their way through courts of appeals. However, plan sponsors following this line of cases can glean several takeaways from the Holmes decision:

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Benefit Plan Descriptions May Create Unilateral Contracts in Pennsylvania

Written descriptions of employee benefits may expose Pennsylvania employers to additional contractual obligations and liabilities. According to a three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel, providing written descriptions to employees regarding various benefits, incentives and rewards may form a binding, unilateral contract creating rights and obligations separate from an employee’s at-will relationship with the employer.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Seventh Circuit Weighs in on Arbitration and Class Waiver Provisions in Defined-Contribution Plans

On September 10, 2021, the Seventh Circuit decided Smith v. Board of Directors of Triad Manufacturing Inc., No. 20-2708, holding that benefit plans may require claimants to arbitrate claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (ERISA), but may not preclude claimants from obtaining relief that ERISA provides.

Triad Manufacturing, acting through its board of directors, established an employee stock ownership plan (Plan) in December 2015, when several of Triad’s largest shareholders (Selling Shareholders) sold all of their stock to the Plan. The Plan was a defined-contribution employee retirement plan governed by ERISA. Triad, acting through the Board, was the Plan’s sponsor, GreatBanc served as the Plan’s trustee and James Smith was a former Triad employee and a participant in the Plan. When the value of Triad’s stock dropped significantly in the weeks following the ESOP transaction, the value of Smith’s interest in the Plan decreased commensurately, eventually prompting Smith to sue.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Fifth Circuit Affirms Decision in Favor of American Airlines in Suit Over Plan Investment Alternative Selection

Following the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Ortiz v. American Airlines, plan fiduciaries should be aware that the application of the Thole decision may be deemed inapposite to claims for a defined-contribution plan, where participants’ benefits are tied directly to fiduciary investment decisions.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: The DOL Determines That Audio Recordings Must Be Produced Under ERISA’s Claim Regulations

On June 14, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an information letter stating that plan fiduciaries have a duty under ERISA’s claim regulations to produce upon request recordings or transcripts of phone calls between benefit claimants and plan representatives regarding their benefit claims. The DOL letter is a call for plan administrators to revisit and potentially refine their processes for recording and storing such conversations.

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The DOL Provides Practical Guidance on the Application of PTE 2020-02

As described in our recent blog posts, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently issued guidance in the form of FAQs to address questions concerning the practical application of PTE 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees.  This blog post discusses the guidance the DOL offers with respect to various topics under PTE 2020-02.  Guidance with respect to the general requirements of PTE 2020-02 was discussed in our prior blog post and the DOL’s guidance with respect to the application of PTE 2020-02 to rollover recommendations was discussed in our prior blog post.

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