In a presentation at McDermott’s Employment and Employee Benefits Forum, Ted Becker and Chris Scheithauer explored the various ways that disgruntled employees file lawsuits with plaintiffs’’ lawyers. Lawsuits have been brought in cases alleging, imprudence in the management of plans, challenging fees, involving company stock, actuarial equivalence and more. They used recent cases such as, NYU, American Century Services and IBM, as examples of the various types of lawsuits and the important lessons employers can take away from them. In addition, they provided attendees with key strategies to minimize exposure to lawsuits, including demonstrating a thoughtful and deliberative decision-making process.

Looking ahead to 2019, they touched on ERISA issues to watch for including, venue/forum selection clauses in plan documents, arbitration agreements and impact on fiduciary duty claims, statute of limitations and burden of proof issues.

View the full presentation.

In an Information Letter dated February 27, 2019, the Department of Labor (DOL) clarified that an ERISA plan must include any procedures for designating authorized representatives in the plan’s claims procedure and summary plan description (SPD) or in a separate document that accompanies the SPD. In response to a request by a patient advocate and health care claim recovery expert for plan participants and beneficiaries, the DOL reiterated that the claims procedure regulations permit authorized representatives to receive notifications in connections with an ERISA plan’s claim and appeal determinations, and noted that a plan’s claims procedure cannot prevent claimants from choosing who will act as their representative for purposes of a claim and/or appeal. ERISA plan sponsors should review plan documents to ensure that the applicable documents clearly outline any steps a participant or beneficiary must take to validly designate an authorized representative under the plan.

The District of Massachusetts court struck the plaintiffs’ jury-trial demand in their ERISA complaint for damages and equitable relief against 401(k) plan fiduciaries. The court followed the “great weight of authority” in ruling that there is no right to trial by jury in ERISA actions for breach of fiduciary duty.

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Several large employers are disputing how much money the New York Times owes a union multiemployer pension fund. Recently, six companies—including US Foods Inc. and United Natural Foods Inc.—filed an amicus brief supporting the New York Times in its case before the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Ruprecht Co., an Illinois meat processor, also filed its own brief in support of the New York Times.

Under the Employer Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), when determining an employer’s withdrawal liability, the actuarial assumptions and methods must “offer the actuary’s best estimate of the anticipated experience under the plan.” The underlying issue in this case involves an actuarial method called the “Segal Blend,” which often is used to value unfunded vested benefits and calculate withdrawal liability (an exit fee) from a union multiemployer pension plan. Under the Segal Blend, the actuary blends the multiemployer plan’s assumed interest rate on investments with a lower interest rate used by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation for terminating plans. Many multiemployer pension plans commonly use the Segal Blend to calculate an employer’s unfunded liability and payment upon exiting the multiemployer plan (known as “withdrawal liability”). These large employers claim that using the Segal Blend results in an artificially lower interest rate, which in turn results in larger employer withdrawal liability and larger amounts an employer must pay to exit the multiemployer pension plan.

Continue Reading Piling On: Corporations Support the New York Times in Multiemployer Pension Calculation Dispute

A recent Eighth Circuit decision regarding “cross-plan offsetting” serves as an important reminder of how ERISA’s fiduciary duties impact both employers and fiduciaries who handle claims.

The case involved the common practice of cross-plan offsetting, which occurs when a claims administrator resolves an overpayment to a provider by refusing to pay that provider for a future claim (or reducing the amount paid for that future claim)—even if the latter claim was made by a participant in an unrelated plan. Cross-plan offsetting allows claims administrators to quickly recover overpaid benefits without the time and expense associated with one-off recovery actions against providers. Defendant UnitedHealth Group (UnitedHealth) initially applied this practice among its in-network providers, but then expanded cross-plan offsetting to non-network providers beginning in 2007. This practice was challenged by two out-of-network doctors in the case at issue, Peterson v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc.

Access the full article.

Recently, the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a proposed class action lawsuit brought by former Georgetown employees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) over fees and investments in its two retirement plans. Plaintiffs alleged that Georgetown breached its fiduciary duty of prudence under ERISA by selecting and retaining investment options with excessive administrative fees and expenses charged to the plans, and unnecessarily retained three recordkeepers rather than one.

The court dismissed most of the claims on the grounds that plaintiffs had not plead sufficient facts showing that they had individually suffered an injury. Because they challenged defined contribution plans (as opposed to defined benefit plans), the plaintiffs had to plead facts showing how their individual plan accounts were harmed. In this case, the named plaintiffs had not invested in the challenged funds, or the challenged fund had actually outperformed other funds, or, in the case of the early withdrawal penalty from the annuity fund, the penalty had been properly disclosed and neither plaintiff had attempted to withdrawal funds – thereby suffering no injury. Moreover, in dismissing the allegations that the Plans included annuities that limited participants’ access to their contributed funds, the court rejoined, “[i]f a cat were a dog, it could bark. If a retirement plan were not based on long-term investments in annuities, its assets would be more immediately accessed by plan participants.” As to another fund, the court rejected the claim that the fiduciaries should be liable for the mere alleged underperformance of the fund, noting that “ERISA does not provide a cause of action for ‘underperforming funds.” Nor is a fiduciary required to select the best performing fund. A fiduciary must only discharge their duties with care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances, when they make their decisions.

Continue Reading Georgetown University Defeats Retirement Plan Fee Litigation and “If a Cat Were a Dog, It Would Bark”

There is significant risk and exposure facing senior leaders charged with workplace and workforce management. As we launch into 2019, it is more critical than ever for in-house counsel and HR professionals to effectively manage ongoing risks and strategically plan for what’s ahead. To learn more, join our half-day forum and reception in one of our two locations this month.

January 29 – San Francisco, CA
January 31 – Los Angeles, CA

This interactive and forward-looking program fosters open discussion that will help you see around the corner and position your business to protect its interests. Key issues of focus will include:

  • Worker Classification: Complications Beyond the Front Page
  • Employee Mobility: Local Challenges with Global Implications
  • ERISA Plan Controversy: Rising Stakes for Those Unprepared
  • Your Attention, Please: Emerging Threats Lurk in Employment and Employee Benefits
  • #MeToo Take Two: Liability Beyond Title VII

Register today.

Late last year, the Ninth Circuit held that in order to trigger ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations a defendant must demonstrate that a plaintiff has actual knowledge of the nature of an alleged breach. Accordingly, the court held that merely having access to documents describing an alleged breach of fiduciary duty is not sufficient to cause ERISA’s statute of limitations to begin to run. Instead, the court rejected the standard embraced by other courts and ruled that participants should not be charged with knowledge of documents they were provided by did not actually read. The Ninth Circuit’s decision underscores circuit split over what is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of actual knowledge for purposes of triggering ERISA’s three-year statute of limitations.

Access the full article.

What to expect in 2019 and how to prepare now. Join McDermott lawyers Judith Wethall, Ted Becker and Rick Pearl for an interactive discussion regarding ERISA litigation trends.

Join our lively 45-minute discussion while we tackle the following items:

  • Plaintiffs’ law firm’s solicitations
  • Health & Welfare Fee Litigation
  • Defined-Benefit Plan Litigation – Actuarial Equivalence lawsuits and greater concern about discretionary decisions
  • Stock-Drop Cases – The Jander decision: Relaxing the Dudenhoeffer standard and the potential impact of a stock market decline
  • 401k/403b – Fee/investment update
  • ESOP transactions – New DOL and plaintiffs’ counsel’s theories

Friday, January 11, 2019
10:00 – 10:45 am PST
11:00 – 11:45 am MST
12:00 – 12:45 pm CST
1:00 – 1:45 pm EST

Register now. 

Late in the afternoon on Friday, December 14, Federal US District Judge Reed O’Connor struck down the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its entirety, a feat that was, for the past few years, unsuccessfully attempted by the Republican-led Congress. O’Connor reasoned that if the individual mandate is no longer valid, the entire ACA must also be scrapped, because the rest of the ACA is “inseverable” from the individual mandate. The opinion is likely to be appealed, and the final decision may ultimately lay with the US Supreme Court. Despite the ruling, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) has stated that the exchanges remain open and 2018 and 2019 coverage will not be impacted.