Your reliable source for summaries of recent ERISA decisions
Below is Kantor & Kantor LLP’s summary of this past week’s notable ERISA decisions.
Good morning, ERISA Watchers! This week’s notable decision is In re Fidelity ERISA Float Litig., No. 15-1445, __F.3d__, 2016 WL 3748685 (1st Cir. July 13, 2016). In this case, Plaintiffs allege that Fidelity breached its fiduciary duties under Section 404(a) (duty of loyalty) and Section 406(b) (prohibition on self-dealing) in its treatment of “float” while administering 401(k) defined-contribution retirement plans. Float, interest earned on the cash paid out by the mutual funds, could be earned by Fidelity at two points after a plan participant requested withdrawal of funds: (1) when the cash was in FICASH (an interest-bearing account owned and controlled by Fidelity) overnight, and, (2) for participants who opted to receive a paper check rather than an electronic transfer, when it sat in the disbursement account until the participant cashed her check. Plaintiffs allege that Prudential breached its fiduciary duties by using float, a plan asset, for purposes other than for the benefit of the 401(k) plans. The district court dismissed the action under Rule 12(b)(6), finding that float is not a plan asset.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision. It rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that cash received in redemption of the mutual-fund shares are plan assets just because the mutual-fund shares are plan assets prior to redemption. The court noted that the redemption does not go, nor is intended to go, to the plan itself. Although Fidelity is in receipt of the funds via the withdrawal process by virtue of its fiduciary relationship with the plan, this relationship is not sufficient to confer plan-asset status on everything that comes within Fidelity’s position. The court’s decision reaches the same conclusion as the Eighth Circuit in Tussey v. ABB, Inc., 746 F.3d 327 (8th Cir. 2014). The court acceded to the Secretary of Labor’s request to reserve decision on the issue as to whether Fidelity, in the absence of an express agreement about float, has engaged in prohibited transactions and acted disloyally.
On a housekeeping matter, where case decisions are publicly available online (i.e. Google Scholar, Justia, court websites), I will provide links to those decisions in lieu of the Westlaw link. For all cases, I will continue to provide the Westlaw citation for future reference. Have a great week!
Select Slip Copy & Not Reported Decisions
- In matter where Plaintiff prevailed on her claim for retirement benefits under the IBM Plan, granting in part Plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees and prejudgment interest and awarding Plaintiff $249,871.50 in attorneys’ fees (based on hourly rates of $625 and $650 for attorneys; $180 for paralegals) and $2,398.31 in prejudgment interest (5% prejudgment interest on the $47,966.10 judgment); reducing time spent by 10% to account for time spent on Plaintiff’s unrelated and unsuccessful claim for statutory penalties. Gurasich v. IBM Retirement Plan; International Business Machines Corporation, No. 14-CV-02911-DMR, 2016 WL 3683044 (N.D. Cal. July 12, 2016) (Judge Donna M. Ryu).
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
- In putative class action matter where Plaintiffs alleged that Fidelity breached two fiduciary duties by using certain plan assets other than for the benefit of the plans, affirming dismissal of case and holding that “float” (interest earned on the cash paid out by the mutual funds) is not a plan asset; reserving decision on the issue as to whether Fidelity, in the absence of an express agreement about float, has engaged in prohibited transactions and acted disloyally. In re Fid. ERISA Float Litig., No. 15-1445, __F.3d__, 2016 WL 3748685 (1st Cir. July 13, 2016) (Before Thompson, Circuit Judge, Souter, Associate Justice, and Kayatta, Circuit Judge).
- In matter challenging an amendment to a 401(k) plan, holding that employer (Acme) and parent (Berkshire) did not violate retirement plans and did not breach their fiduciary duties, and employees stated a claim that amendment to ERISA plans was unreasonable. Specifically, the court affirmed dismissal of breach of fiduciary duty claims against Acme, where the court found that Acme acted akin to a settlor of a trust, rather than in a fiduciary capacity, when it implemented the amendment. The court also affirmed dismissal of derivative breach of fiduciary duty claim against Berkshire, but reversed district court’s dismissal of claim against Berkshire seeking to enforce a contractual commitment rather than a vested benefit under ERISA. Hunter v. Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., No. 15-10854, __F.3d__, 2016 WL 3710253 (5th Cir. July 11, 2016) (Before CLEMENT and OWEN, Circuit Judges, and JORDAN, District Judge).
- A consultant is not a functional-fiduciary for purposes of an ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claim where she does not exercise discretionary authority in administering a pension plan, including by making a calculation of benefits at the request of a plan participant. Lebahn v. Nat’l Farmers Union Unif. Pension Plan, No. 15-3201, __F.3d__, 2016 WL 3670007 (10th Cir. July 11, 2016) (Before HOLMES, MURPHY, and BACHARACH, Circuit Judges).
Disability Benefit Claims
- Denying LINA’s motion for partial summary judgment on the standard of review where the documents in the record do not evidence a clear intent to grant LINA discretionary authority as a matter of law because the Appointment of Claim Fiduciary form’s (“ACF”) grant of discretionary authority, also recited in plan summaries within the Policies’ Insurance Certificates, is not considered part of “the benefit plan” under Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989). Pettit v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., No. CV RDB-15-2694, 2016 WL 3668022 (D. Md. July 11, 2016) (Judge Richard D. Bennett).
- Denying Plaintiff’s motion under Rules 59 and 60 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure from the Order granting summary judgment in favor of Lincoln on Plaintiff’s long-term disability claim, where Plaintiff makes essentially the same arguments as she does in her summary judgment motion and does not identify any clerical errors. Till v. Lincoln Nat’l Life Ins. Co., No. 2:14-CV-721-WKW, 2016 WL 3667593 (M.D. Ala. July 7, 2016) (Judge W. Keith Watkins).
- In a long-term disability matter, ordering that the deposition of Hartford’s Rule 30(b)(6) designee be taken in the corporation’s principal place of business and deposition of its two employees be taken in their respective places of residence. Regarding permissible topics of discovery, the court permitted limited inquiry into: Hartford’s training of claims personnel to comply with the ERISA claim regulations; and any incentive, bonus, or reward programs or systems that Hartford has for its disability claims personnel (but not compensation paid to specific employees). Court denied discovery into: further inquiry into Hartford’s claims unit organizational structure; Hartford’s reduction of monthly benefits by “Other Income Benefits” as well as its collection practices related to these benefits; and Hartford’s earnings and profits for its disability claims unit, including its use of claim closure targets and tracking of reserves. Davis v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Company, No. 3:14-CV-00507-TBR, 2016 WL 3843478 (W.D. Ky. July 13, 2016) (Judge W. Keith Watkins).
- In a long-term disability matter where Plaintiff argued that Aetna’s vocational consultants failed to provide a labor market survey and that a vocational report’s underlying data did not show available jobs within a reasonable geographical area, the court disagreed with Plaintiff’s assertions and found that Plaintiff failed to show the existence of a specific conflict of interest or instance of misconduct to warrant discovery related to Aetna’s alleged structural conflict of interest. Schrock v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, No. 15 C 10582, 2016 WL 3693428 (N.D. Ill. July 12, 2016) (Magistrate Judge Mary M. Rowland).
- In matter challenging validity of a QDRO, granting surviving spouse’s motion to limit discovery related to the separation agreement since the court will not look beyond the Franklin County Circuit Court’s March 2015 order to determine whether it is a QDRO. But, if the court later determines that the order is a QDRO, there may be circumstances where the intent of the parties is relevant and the former spouse can seek such discovery at that point. Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan v. Laenen, et al., 2016 WL 3753702 (E.D. Mo. July 14, 2016) (Judge Catherine D. Perry).
Life Insurance & AD&D Benefit Claims
- Upholding Unum’s decision to deny accidental dismemberment benefits based on a policy exception for dismemberment “caused by, contributed to by, or resulting from…disease of the body,” where Unum determined that Plaintiff’s below-the-knee amputation, following a slip and fall accident and several operations, was partly necessitated by Plaintiff’s diabetes. Collins v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America, No. 15-CV-2229, 2016 WL 3763097 (N.D. Ohio July 14, 2016) (Judge James S. Gwin).
- In matter involving contested life insurance benefits, denying Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss counterclaim and third party interpleader complaint brought by Prudential, where previous beneficiaries (decedent’s children) allege that beneficiary form naming Plaintiff are invalid due to mental incompetency or completed without decedent’s consent. Jacques v. The Prudential Insurance Company Of America, No. 8:16-CV-1297-T-33TGW, 2016 WL 3746538 (M.D. Fla. July 12, 2016) (Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington).
Medical Benefit Claims
- Granting California Department of Managed Health Care’s (“DMHC”) motion to dismiss complaint brought by three churches that allegedly offer their employees DMHC-regulated health coverage through seven insurers – to whom DMHC wrote requiring them to remove any limitations on or exclusions of abortion services from the health care coverage they offer – claiming that the letters violate their constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Foothill Church, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, & Shepherd Of The Hills Church, v. Michelle Rouillard, in her official capacity as Dir. of the California Dep’t of Managed Health Care, No. 215CV02165KJMEFB, 2016 WL 3688422 (E.D. Cal. July 11, 2016).
Pleading Issues & Procedure
- Court is bound by Second Circuit precedent holding that suits to recover benefits under Section 1132(a)(1)(B) are equitable in nature and there is no right to a jury trial in a suit brought to recover ERISA benefits. Pravda v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., No. 16-CV-2750 (AJN), 2016 WL 3842741 (S.D.N.Y. July 12, 2016) (Judge Alison J. Nathan).
- In matter involving judgment against Debtor for self-dealing, prohibited transactions and breaches of fiduciary duty under ERISA related to the Harris Realty Pension Plan, denying Debtor’s claim of exemption under Code of Civil Procedure Section 708.550 and ordering that 100% of any distributions made to Michael F. Harris from the Rita Harris Trust, the Gilbert Harris Bypass Trust and/or the Michael Harris Discretionary Trust shall be assigned to Plaintiffs in partial satisfaction of Debtor’s outstanding judgment. Cavellini v. Harris, No. 93-CV-00057-SBA(KAW), 2016 WL 3648927 (N.D. Cal. July 8, 2016) (Magistrate Kandis A. Westmore).
- In consolidated action by terminated Allstate agents against Allstate Insurance Company, finding that the agents may proceed on retaliation claims under the ADEA and ERISA based on Allstate’s counterclaims since the agents plead facts from which one can reasonably infer Allstate’s counterclaims are objectively baseless, made in bad faith, and brought with a retaliatory motive. Romero, et al. v. Allstate Insurance Company, et al., No. 01-3894, 2016 WL 3654265 (E.D. Pa. July 6, 2016) (Judge Andrews).
Statute of Limitations
- Assuming arguendo the Abell Plaintiffs had “actual knowledge” of the alleged breach by November 10, 1999, the court declined to find the claim time barred since the action was “commenced” within the limitations period by the filing of the complaint; commencement of an action does not require that service be completed within the time established by Rule 4(m). Romero, et al. v. Allstate Insurance Company, et al., No. 01-3894, 2016 WL 3654265 (E.D. Pa. July 6, 2016) (Judge Andrews).
Severance Benefit Claims
- In lawsuit for severance benefits, affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer and holding that: (1) severance agreement was an “employee benefit plan” subject to ERISA; (2) employee failed to exhaust administrative remedies on claim that employer’s property did not include electronic property; and (3) severance agreement permitted employer to require employees to return company property prior to receiving benefits. Gomez v. Ericsson, Inc., No. 15-41479, __F.3d__, 2016 WL 3669965 (5th Cir. July 8, 2016) (Before SMITH, BARKSDALE, and COSTA, Circuit Judges).
Withdrawal Liability & Unpaid Contributions
- Recommending that the motion for default judgment be granted and judgment be entered against the defendant in the amount of $38,714.73 plus interest from June 15, 2016, and continuing beyond the date of judgment, at the rate of $13.74 per day, and that Defendant make its books and records available for audit at a reasonable time if requested by Plaintiffs. Carol A. Wilson, Adm’r, et al. v. Bryan Waller, No. 2:16-CV-119, 2016 WL 3769332 (S.D. Ohio July 15, 2016) (Magistrate Judge Terence P. Kemp).
- Recommending that the motion for default judgment be granted and judgment be entered against the Defendant in the amount of $12,962.13, with interest on the unpaid contributions of $10,777.13 to run at the rate of 1% per month from the date of judgment. Boards of Trustees of Ohio Laborers’ Fringe Benefit Programs v. Headlands Contracting & Tunneling, Inc., No. 2:16-CV-433, 2016 WL 3769328 (S.D. Ohio July 15, 2016) (Magistrate Judge Terence P. Kemp).
- Granting motion for summary judgment is granted in favor of Plaintiffs in the amount of $38,893.31, which is comprised of the following amounts: $7,845.25 in unpaid contributions; $2,939.25 in interest on unpaid contributions as of September 14, 2015, on which additional interest will continue to accrue until paid; $2,939.25 as an amount equal to the greater of the interest on unpaid contributions or liquidated damages provided for under the plan, on which additional interest will continue to accrue until paid; $12,229.36 in reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of the action, consisting of $11,528.50 in fees and $700.86 in costs; and $12,940.20 in audit costs. Trustees Of The Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local 13 Defined Contribution Pension Trust For Southern Nevada, et al., v. G.G. Construction, Inc., et al., No. 214CV01448RFBNJK, 2016 WL 3769346 (D. Nev. July 14, 2016) (Judge Richard F. Boulware, II).
* Please note that these are only case summaries of decisions as they are reported and do not constitute legal advice. These summaries are not updated to note any subsequent change in status, including whether a decision is reconsidered or vacated. If you have questions about how the developing law impacts your ERISA benefit claim, contact an experienced ERISA attorney. Case summaries authored by Michelle L. Roberts, Partner, Kantor & Kantor LLP, 1050 Marina Village Pkwy., Ste. 105, Alameda, CA 94501; Tel: 510-992-6130.