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: Ninth Circuit Partially Reverses Dismissal of Two Proposed Class Actions

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partially reversed the dismissal of two proposed class actions alleging mismanagement of separate 401(k) plans in violation of ERISA. In Davis v. Salesforce.com, Inc., 2022 WL 105557 (9th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022), participants in 401(k) plan claimed that Salesforce.com, its board of directors, investment committee and executives breached their fiduciary duties by imprudently selecting and retaining relatively high-cost investments and failing to investigate less expensive alternatives, despite the availability of lower-cost options with identical or substantially similar underlying assets. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint in its entirety, noting that it lacked adequate factual support. Specifically, the district court held that the allegations regarding alternative share classes, without more, were insufficient to state a claim; the complaint improperly attempted to compare passive funds with actively managed funds; and there is no obligation to offer alternatives such as collective investment trusts (CITs), and, in any event, CITs are not meaningful comparators to mutual funds.

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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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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Mortality Table Pension Plan Litigation – Reasonableness Not Required

When determining alternative pension benefits (such as joint and survivor annuities and early retirement benefits), a recent court decision held that underlying actuarial assumptions selected decades ago do not violate federal law simply because they are outdated and may result in a pension benefit that is less than using more current actuarial assumption.

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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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Department of Labor Issues New Guidance on Private Equity Investments in Individual Account Plans

On December 21, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued additional guidance on the use of private equity investments in certain retirement plans, warning that most plan fiduciaries will not have enough experience to adequately evaluate such investments.

The DOL’s guidance relates to a June 3, 2020 “information letter” (which is a non-binding statement) issued by the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the DOL . In that information letter, the DOL addressed private equity investments in “designated investment alternatives” (or DIAs) offered to participants in individual account plans, like 401(k) plans, considered whether ERISA prohibits offering certain private equity investments to participants in individual account plans.

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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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