Justia Contracts Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in ERISA
Markham v. Variable Annuity Life
A married couple who owned a small dental practice, D.L. Markham DDS, MSD, Inc., established an employee pension benefit plan for their business. They hired Variable Annuity Life Insurance Company (VALIC) to maintain the plan. Dissatisfied with VALIC's services, they decided to terminate their contract and were informed by VALIC that they would be charged a 5% surrender fee on all of the plan’s assets. The couple sued, alleging VALIC violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) by breaching its fiduciary duties and engaging in a prohibited transaction. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of their claims. The court held that VALIC did not act as a fiduciary when it collected the surrender fee, as it simply adhered to the contract by collecting the previously agreed-upon compensation. The court also found that VALIC was not a "party in interest" when it entered the contract, as it had not yet begun providing services to the plan. Finally, the court held that VALIC's collection of the surrender fee did not constitute a separate transaction under ERISA, as it was a payment in accordance with an existing agreement. The court also affirmed the district court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint due to undue delay and insufficient detail of their new allegations. View "Markham v. Variable Annuity Life" on Justia Law
Gonzalez v. Blue Cross Blue Shield
Plaintiff is a former federal employee and participant in a health-insurance plan (“Plan”) that is governed by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Act (“FEHBA”). The Plan stems from a contract between the federal Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and certain of its affiliates (together, “Blue Cross”). Blue Cross administers the Plan under OPM’s supervision. Plaintiff suffered from cancer, and she asked Blue Cross whether the Plan would cover the proton therapy that her physicians recommended. Blue Cross told her the Plan did not cover that treatment. So Plaintiff chose to receive a different type of radiation treatment, one that the Plan did cover. The second-choice treatment eliminated cancer, but it also caused devastating side effects. Plaintiff then sued OPM and Blue Cross, claiming that the Plan actually does cover proton therapy. As against OPM, she seeks the “benefits” that she wanted but did not receive, as well as an injunction directing OPM to compel Blue Cross to reform its internal processes by, among other things, covering proton therapy in the Plan going forward. As against Blue Cross, she seeks monetary damages under Texas common law. The district court dismissed Plaintiff’s suit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court held that neither the advance process nor the proton-therapy guideline poses an immediate threat of injury, so injunctive relief is therefore unavailable. Further, the court found that FEHBA preempts Plaintiff’s common-law claims against Blue Cross. Accordingly, the court held that no relief is available under the relevant statutory and regulatory regime. View "Gonzalez v. Blue Cross Blue Shield" on Justia Law
McCutcheon v. Colgate-Palmolive Co.
Plaintiffs brought a class action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), arguing that Defendant Colgate-Palmolive Co. miscalculated residual annuities based on an erroneous interpretation of its retirement income plan and improperly used a pre-retirement mortality discount to calculate residual annuities, thereby working an impermissible forfeiture of benefits under ERISA. The district court granted summary judgment to Plaintiffs on these claims. Colgate appealed that order and the final judgment of the district court. The Second Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the text of the RAA is unambiguous and requires Colgate to calculate a member's residual annuity by subtracting the AE of LS from that member's winning annuity under Appendix C Section 2(b). Further, the court wrote that Colgate's "same-benefit" argument does not disturb our conclusion that the RAA's language is unambiguous. Because "unambiguous language in an ERISA plan must be interpreted and enforced in accordance with its plain meaning," the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the class Plaintiffs as to Error 1. View "McCutcheon v. Colgate-Palmolive Co." on Justia Law
Cons. Laborers Welfare Fund v. RoadSafe Traffic Systems, Inc.
A collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) required RoadSafe Traffic Systems, Inc. to contribute to four employee benefits Funds. The Funds sued for unpaid contributions, alleging that the CBA unambiguously requires contributions for all hours worked by covered employees, regardless of the type of work performed. RoadSafe countered that the CBA unambiguously requires contributions only for construction and highway work. The district court granted summary judgment to RoadSafe. The issue on appeal was whether the CBA obligates RoadSafe to make contributions to the Funds for all or only specified types of work The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that by its plain language, Article V of the CBA limits RoadSafe’s contribution obligations to “Building Construction” and “Highway/Heavy” categories of work. Because work coded as NON or “shop hours” is not within the definitions of either “Building Construction” or “Highway/Heavy,” the CBA does not require RoadSafe to make contributions for the coded work. Therefore, the district court properly granted summary judgment to RoadSafe. View "Cons. Laborers Welfare Fund v. RoadSafe Traffic Systems, Inc." on Justia Law
Robert Gelschus v. Clifford Hogen
Plaintiff made contributions to a 401(k) plan during her employment at Honeywell International Inc. She originally designated her husband, Defendant, as the sole beneficiary in the event of her death. The parties later divorced and in the marital termination agreement (MTA), they agreed that Plaintiff will be awarded, free and clear of any claim on the part of Defendant’s, all of the parties’ right, title, and interest in and to the Honeywell 401(k) Savings and Ownership Plan. Plaintiff submitted a change-of-beneficiary form to Honeywell. She, however, did not comply with a requirement. Plaintiff died in 2019 and Honeywell paid the benefits to Defendant. The personal representative of Plaintiff’s estate sued Honeywell for breach of fiduciary duty, and Defendant for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and civil theft. The Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Honeywell and reversed summary judgment for Defendant on the breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims. The court explained that even if the Plan gave the administrator discretion to accept Plaintiff’s defective Form, it is not an abuse of discretion to act in accordance with plan documents. ERISA directs administrators to “discharge [their] duties . . . in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan.” Thus, because Honeywell followed plan documents in rejecting Plaintiff’s defective change-of-beneficiary form and distributing benefits, the breach of fiduciary duty claim fails. Further, even if the MTA were ambiguous, a reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff and Defendant intended for the MTA to waive his beneficiary interest in the 401(k). View "Robert Gelschus v. Clifford Hogen" on Justia Law
Operating Engineers’ Local 324 Fringe Benefits Funds v. Rieth-Riley Construction Co.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court dismissing this ERISA action for lack of jurisdiction on the grounds that no contract bound the parties, holding that the presence of a live contract goes to the merits of this action, not the district court's jurisdiction to hear it.A group of employee benefits funds sued Defendant in a federal district court alleging breach of contract for late contributions under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Defendant responded that no contract existed and that the presence of a live contract was a jurisdictional prerequisite to Plaintiffs' ERISA suit, meaning that the claim should have been brought under the National Labor Relations Act and that the National Labor Relations Board had exclusive jurisdiction to hear Plaintiffs' grievances. The district court dismissed the suit without prejudice, holding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear Plaintiffs' claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the presence of a live contract is not an essential jurisdictional fact in an action brought under section 515 of ERISA. Rather, the presence of a live contract goes to the merits of Plaintiffs' ERISA claim. View "Operating Engineers' Local 324 Fringe Benefits Funds v. Rieth-Riley Construction Co." on Justia Law
Board of Trustees v. Four-C-Aire, Inc.
The Board of Trustees of the Sheet Metal Workers’ National Pension Fund (“the Fund”) sought to recover a delinquent exit contribution from Four-C-Aire, Inc., a former participating employer, under Section 515 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). 29 U.S.C. Section 1145. The Fund claims Four-C-Aire’s obligation arose under a collective-bargaining agreement (“the CBA”) between the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association Local Union No. 58 and the Central New York Sheet Metal Contractors Association, a multiemployer bargaining unit. According to the Fund, Four C-Aire signed on to this preexisting agreement while it was a member of the Contractors Association. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, finding that Four-C-Aire adopted the agreement by its conduct. The court held that even if Four-C-Aire had preserved the issue, it’s meritless. The record contains several iterations of the written trust documents, including those imposing the exit-contribution requirement. And the Fund’s Director of Operations verified each version of the document in a declaration to the district court. Further, the court wrote there is no evidence the trust documents are invalid. In sum, Four-C-Aire offers no reason why the court shouldn’t enforce the plain terms of the agreement and trust documents, as ERISA requires. View "Board of Trustees v. Four-C-Aire, Inc." on Justia Law
Raniero Gimeno v. NCHMD, Inc., et al.
Plaintiff’s spouse was a medical doctor employed by NCHMD, Inc., which is a subsidiary of NCH Healthcare System, Inc. NCHMD’s human resources staff helped the spouse complete enrollment paperwork for life insurance benefits through an ERISA plan. Plaintiff was the primary beneficiary under the plan, and NCH Healthcare was the named plan administrator. After Plaintiff’s spouse died, Plaintiff filed a claim for benefits with the plan’s insurance company. The insurance company refused to pay any supplemental benefits because it had never received the form. Plaintiff sued NCHMD and NCH Healthcare, asserting a claim under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. Section 1132(a)(1)(B). The district court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss and denied Plaintiff leave to amend. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The court wrote that at issue is whether Section 1132(a)(3) creates a cause of action for an ERISA beneficiary to recover monetary benefits lost due to a fiduciary’s breach of fiduciary duty in the plan enrollment process? The court answered “yes”, and explained that under the court’s precedents, a court may order typical forms of equitable relief under Section 1132(a)(3). As the Supreme Court and many sister circuits have recognized, courts in equity could traditionally order an “equitable surcharge”— that a fiduciary pay a beneficiary for losses caused by the fiduciary’s breach of fiduciary duty. Accordingly, the court held that a beneficiary of an ERISA plan can bring a lawsuit under Section 1132(a)(3) against a fiduciary to recover benefits that were lost due to the fiduciary’s breach of its duties. View "Raniero Gimeno v. NCHMD, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
RiverStone Group, Inc v. Midwest Operating Engineers Fringe Benefit Funds
RiverStone operates quarries in three midwestern states. Under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), RiverStone contributed to the Fringe Benefit Funds for certain employees, based on hours worked by the members of the bargaining unit. The CBA expired in May 2016. Nothing in the agreement imposes on RiverStone an obligation to make contributions after the agreement. RiverStone sought a declaratory judgment that it had no obligation to make contributions to the employees’ pension fund on behalf of individuals hired after the CBA expired. The Funds filed a counterclaim.The district court granted RiverStone summary judgment, holding that RiverStone did not have a contractual duty to contribute to the Funds on behalf of the new employees and that it lacked jurisdiction to evaluate noncontractual sources of liability, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) so the dispute fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The dispute is over an obligation that does not arise under any contract. Once a CBA has expired, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1145, does not confer jurisdiction on the district court to determine whether the employer’s failure to make post-contract contributions violated the NLRA. View "RiverStone Group, Inc v. Midwest Operating Engineers Fringe Benefit Funds" on Justia Law
Jacqueline Fisher v. Aetna Life Insurance Company
Plaintiff argued that the insurance contract between the parties was governed by a document provided on January 9, 2014, instead of February 19, 2014; that she is entitled to a judgment based on the insurance company’s miscalculation of her copay; and that even if the February 19 document controls, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 18022(c)(1) (“ACA”), mandates that the insurance company must apply the individual out-of-pocket limit rather than the family out-of-pocket limit; and that the generic-brand cost differential Plaintiff paid for her name-brand medication should count toward her out-of-pocket limit. Plaintiff filed a breach of contract claim under ERISA, and the district court granted Defendant judgment on the breach of contract claims under ERISA. The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgments. The court held that the February document governed the relationship between the parties because Plaintiff was on notice as to its terms. Further, Plaintiff is not entitled to a money judgment for her copay because Defendant agreed to pay Plaintiff the copay differential. The court also found that the ACA does not provide that the annual limitation on cost-sharing applies to all individuals regardless of whether the individual is covered under an individual “self-only” plan or is covered by a plan that is other than self-only for plans effective before 2016. Finally, the court held that the ACA nor the February document required Defendant to apply the brand-generic cost differential costs to Plaintiff’s out-of-pocket limit. View "Jacqueline Fisher v. Aetna Life Insurance Company" on Justia Law