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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Thinking ESOPs: Sixth Circuit Enforces ERISA Exclusion in ESOP Trustee’s Insurance Policy

A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision serves as a warning to policyholders: read your entire policy, understand each provision and confirm that the policy language accurately reflects your understanding of the coverage you purchased.

Navigating an insurance policy is not easy. A policy’s declarations, general terms, insuring agreements, definitions, exclusions, conditions and endorsements collectively set forth the scope of the policy’s coverage. With very rare exceptions, both the insurer and the policyholder will be bound by the language found in the policy. This is true even if the language in the policy is unfavorable to the policyholder and does not cover risks the policyholder was attempting to mitigate through insurance.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: Federal District Court Dismisses ERISA Stock-Drop Suit

On September 30, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed an ERISA stock-drop lawsuit brought against alleged fiduciaries of Aetna, Inc.’s (Aetna’s) employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), holding that the plaintiffs failed to state a fiduciary breach claim under ERISA.  Radcliffe v. Aetna, Inc., No. 3:20-cv-01274, 2021 WL 4477408 (D. Conn. Sept. 30, 2021).

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Thinking ESOPs: Court Rejects DOL Claims of ESOP Overpayment

The board of directors of Bowers + Kubota Consulting, Inc. recently won an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) fiduciary/breach case brought against them by the Department of Labor. See Walsh v. Bowers, et al., No. 1:18-cv-00155-SOM-WRP (D. Haw. Sept. 17, 2021). After a full trial on the merits, the district-court judge entered judgment in favor of the defendants, largely based on the court’s rejection of the DOL’s critiques of the valuation upon which the trustee relied. What is perhaps most interesting about the court’s decision is the contrast between the discussion in this case of fundamental ERISA and valuation concepts, on the one hand, and the discussion of fundamental ERISA and valuation concepts in two other cases in which courts entered judgment against the defendants.

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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: Northern District of Illinois Dismisses ERISA Stock-Drop Suit

On August 23, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed an ERISA stock-drop lawsuit brought against fiduciaries of Kraft Heinz Food Company’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), holding that the plaintiffs failed to meet the “more harm than good” pleading standard set forth in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 573 U.S. 409, 428 (2014). Osborne v. Emp. Benefits Admin. Bd. of Kraft Heinz, No. 20-cv-2256, 2021 WL 3725613 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 23, 2021).

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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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Thinking ESOPs: Enforceability of Arbitration Provisions — There Might Be More to the Analysis

Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff was required to request attorneys’ fees during an arbitration of an ERISA claims dispute. Having failed to do so, the plaintiff could not subsequently seek a fee award from the district court. The Sixth Circuit held that because the parties were obligated to arbitrate their ERISA disputes, the court’s jurisdiction was limited, and the parties were obligated to raise any remedy issues during the arbitration.

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ERISA Litigation Roundup: A Ninth Circuit Ruling Reminds ERISA Plans of the Importance of Administrative Accuracy

The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in Bafford v. Northrop Grumman (April 15, 2021) affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA but vacated the district court’s holding that state-law professional and negligent misrepresentation claims were preempted.

Northrop Grumman (Northrup), sponsor of the ERISA-governed retirement plan at issue, delegated administration of the plan to an administrative committee (the Committee). The Committee, in turn, contracted with a record keeper to provide outside administrative services. One of the services offered by the record keeper was an online benefits portal to assist plan participants in estimating pension benefits.

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