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Seventh Circuit Holds that ERISA does not Preempt State “Slayer Statute”

We turn once again to the sad and difficult task that plan administrators face when distributing the benefits of a participant who has been murdered by his or her designated beneficiary. Sad for obvious reasons.  Difficult because ERISA and state law may provide different answers.  ERISA directs a plan to honor a participant’s beneficiary designation—meaning that the murderer would receive the benefit. “Slayer statutes” prohibit the murderer from receiving a financial benefit from his or her victim, requiring the plan to disregard the beneficiary designation.

Our prior blog post suggested three strategies that a plan administrator might employ in the face of uncertainty: interpleader, receipt and refunding agreement, and affidavit of status.  Under the interpleader approach, the plan administrator would pay the benefit into the registry of the court and join each potential claimant as a party defendant. Each claimant would then argue for receipt of the benefit, and the court would award the benefit and issue a judgment upon which the plan administrator may rely for protection against the losing claimants.  This certainty comes at the cost and effort required by litigation in federal court.

A recent Seventh Circuit case involves just this approach.  In Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Miscevice, No. 17-2022, the participant was killed by his wife.  At the state criminal court proceeding, the court determined that the wife intended to kill her husband without legal justification but also that she was insane at the time and therefore not guilty of

SCOTUS Meant What It Said & Said What It Meant: Dudenhoeffer Imposes Higher Pleading Standards

Stock DropIn a rebuke to the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court granted the Amgen defendants’ petition for certiorari, reversed the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion in the district court. The unanimous per curiam opinion was issued without further briefing and oral argument, an unusual step in civil cases. The substance of the opinion and its handling by summary disposition sends a clear message: the Court meant what it said in Dudenhoeffer when it stressed the role of motions to dismiss in “divid[ing] the plausible sheep from the meritless goats” and crafted new liability requirements that plaintiffs must plausibly allege are met in order to state a claim. Admittedly, we steal liberally from Judge Kozinski’s dissent in Amgen in characterizing the opinion this way. But the Court’s summary handling of the Ninth Circuit’s judgment leaves no doubt that motions to dismiss must be given serious consideration and that boilerplate allegations will not suffice.

A Short Review of Amgen’s Long History

The continuing Amgen litigation began in 2007 when former employees filed a class action against Amgen defendants alleging that the fiduciaries violated the duty of prudence under ERISA. The complaint alleged that the fiduciaries knew or should have known, on the basis of inside information, that the company’s stock price was inflated. The district court dismissed the original complaint

The Moench Presumption is Dead – Long Live the Dudenhoeffer Presumption

On June 25, 2014, a unanimous United States Supreme Court weighed in on the legal standards applicable in stock drop cases in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer.

Facts. Beginning in 2007, Fifth Third Bank began experiencing a large number of mishaps, most of them associated with borrowers not repaying their loans when due. As a result, Fifth Third’s stock price suffered the same phenomenon as that of virtually every other publicly traded financial institution in the world during the great recession: it dropped precipitously, falling 74% from July 2007 to September 2009. With the benefit of hindsight, plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against the fiduciaries of the Fifth Third 401(k) Plan, alleging that all of this should have been patently obvious based on public and nonpublic information allegedly possessed by the fiduciaries. The plaintiffs asserted that the fiduciaries should have taken one or more of the following actions with respect to the company stock fund in the 401(k) Plan: (1) sell the stock before it declined; (2) refrain from purchasing any more Fifth Third stock; (3) cancel the Plan’s company stock option; and (4) disclose the inside information allegedly in their possession so that the market would appropriately adjust its valuation of Fifth Third stock downward and the Plan would as a result no longer be overpaying for it.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling. Much of the decision focuses on whether the so-called “Moench” presumption of prudence attaches to a fiduciary’s decision to allow or continue

Collective Bargaining Agreements: Creating Vested Retiree Medical Benefits

Following its December 22, 2011, ruling we discussed previously that retired Kelsey-Hayes (“Company”) union members must arbitrate their claims for fully-paid lifetime retiree medical benefits, the Eastern District of Michigan handed a victory to different class of union retirees facing similar changes to their healthcare coverages.  United Steelworkers of America v. Kelsey-Hayes Co.

Plaintiffs worked at the now closed automobile parts manufacturing plant in Jackson, Michigan. Under the collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) with the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, the Company was required to establish healthcare coverage for retirees and their dependents and surviving spouses and to contribute the full premium for such coverages.  Before and after the plant closing in 2006, the Company paid all retirees’ healthcare coverage costs.  In September 2011, the Company announced plans to replace the retiree medical plan with individual health reimbursement accounts funded by the Company and to be used by retirees to purchase of individual healthcare policies.   On January 1, 2012, the Company discontinued healthcare coverage for retirees age 65 and older and made a one-time contribution of $15,000 for each retiree and spouse for 2012 and provided for an additional $4,800 credit for 2013.  Any future contributions would be at the discretion of the Company.  Retirees filed suit alleging that the Company’s unilateral modification of their health benefits constituted a breach of the terms of the CBAs in violation of ERISA.

Citing a line of cases addressing

Supreme Court to Hear Case on Accrual of Causes of Action Under ERISA

Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted a plan participant’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., No. 12-729, 2013 WL 1500233 (Apr. 15, 2013). The Court limited its review to a single question raised by the petitioner: “When should a statute of limitations accrue for judicial review of an ERISA disability adverse benefit determination?” The Supreme Court declined review of two other questions raised by the petition regarding the adequacy of notice provided to the participant: (1) “What notice regarding time limits for judicial review of an adverse benefit determination should an ERISA plan or its fiduciary give the claimant with a disability claim?”; and (2) “When an ERISA plan or its fiduciary fails to give proper notice of the time limits for filing a judicial action to review denial of disability benefits, what is the remedy?”

The Second Circuit in Heimeshoff had affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that Connecticut law permitted the plan to shorten the applicable state limitations period (to a period not less than one year) and that the plan’s three-year limitations period could begin to run before the participant’s claim accrued, as prescribed by plan terms. Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 496 Fed. Appx. 129, 130 (2d Cir. 2012). In this case, the plan provided that the limitations period ran from the time that proof of loss was due under the plan. Id.

In January, Bryan Cave issued a Read More

Eighth Circuit Clarifies the Scope of ERISA’s Application to Severance Arrangements

 The Eighth Circuit’s recent decision in Dakota, Minn. & E. R.R. Corp. v. Schieffer (Schieffer II), No. 12-1807, 2013 WL 1235235 (8th Cir. Mar. 28, 2013), offers new insight into the circumstances under which severance benefits provided under an executive’s employment contract are governed by ERISA.  The opinion clarifies that ERISA does not govern contractual obligations in an executive employment contract that are not provided under an ERISA plan and, even where amount of payments are made by reference to the terms of an ERISA plan, the arrangement does not “relate to” an ERISA plan.   Schieffer concerned a dispute over severance benefits after the employer (“DM&E”) terminated its CEO in anticipation of a merger.  Under the employment agreement, DM&E had agreed to continue providing Schieffer benefits for three years following his severance payment.  These benefits, as described in the employment agreement, included “‘all employee health, welfare and retirement benefits plans and programs made available generally to senior executives,’ and, if Schieffer became ineligible to participate, ‘whether by law or the terms thereof,’” DM&E “would make ‘a cash payment equal to’ what it would have contributed if he participated” in the plan.  Id. at *3. Schieffer filed a demand for arbitration, seeking among other things double-damages under a state wage statute that would be preempted if ERISA applied. DM&E responded by filing a declaratory judgment action in federal court to enjoin the arbitration.  The arbitration demand had alleged that DM&E had breached obligations under the employment agreement by (1) terminating

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