NELA Joins AARP To Support Employees In Two ERISA Cases

By Pedro A. Valverde posted 07-16-2013 03:08 PM


NELA joined AARP in filing amicus curiae briefs in two important cases supporting employees with claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) in the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Heimseshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (Case No. 12-729), pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, involves the question of when a statute of limitations should accrue under ERISA for judicial review of an adverse disability benefit determination. In this case, the plaintiff brought suit to obtain long-term disability benefits from her employee benefit plan. The lower courts dismissed her case as time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations period established in the benefit plan policy, a holding that meant her claim accrued before she had received the adverse determination of her appeal through the plan’s mandatory claims procedures. If the Court were to adopt Hartford’s application of the plan’s statute of limitations for judicial review, this would result in the statute of limitations running before the employee has even had the opportunity to exhaust the plan’s mandatory claims procedures. NELA and AARP’s amicus brief, filed on July 2, 2013, argues that despite the Court’s decision last term in U.S. Airways v. McCutcheon, 569 U. S. ____ (2013), holding that clear plan terms are enforceable, an implied term must be read into the long-term disability ERISA plan in this case regarding the limitations period to enable the employee to exhaust the plan’s claims procedures. In particular, we urge the Court to allow for equitable tolling of the contractual limitations period during the time a claimant is unable to bring suit because of mandatory claims exhaustion. Such a tolling provision provides a bright line test, is fair to all parties, and facilitates ERISA’s goal of providing a thoughtful, full, fair and frank exchange of information and a complete dialogue between the parties. Our brief was written by NELA members Mary Ellen Signorille (AARP Foundation Litigation), Ronald Dean (Ronald Dean ALC), and Nina Wasow (Lewis Feinberg Lee Renaker & Jackson P.C.). You may download and read the full amici brief in Heimeshoff on The NELA Exchange.

In the Fourth Circuit case, Tatum v. RJ Reynolds Investment Committee, et al. (Case No. 13-1360), after RJR Nabisco Holdings Inc. spun off defendants R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. in 1999, Nabisco stock was sold and removed as an investment option from the pension plan. The district court found that the plan had breached its fiduciary duties of procedural prudence by removing and selling the stock without a proper investigation. The court ruled, however, that because a hypothetical prudent fiduciary “could” have taken this same action, the plan was absolved of liability. This was a far more lenient standard than the one plaintiffs urged the court to use—that more likely than not a reasonable fiduciary “would” not have sold or eliminated the stock as an option. NELA and AARP’s amicus brief, filed on June 4, 2013, argues that the protections afforded by ERISA are of vital concern to workers of all ages and to retirees since the quality of workers’ lives in retirement depends heavily on their eligibility for, and the amount of, their retirement and welfare benefits. In order to ensure retirement security for workers, we advocate that ERISA must be construed to protect the trillions of dollars in 401(k) plans by finding a fiduciary’s investment decision imprudent if a hypothetical prudent fiduciary more likely than not would not have made the same investment decision for the same plan at the same time. Our brief in Tatum was also written by NELA members Mary Ellen Signorille (AARP Foundation Litigation) and Ronald Dean (Ronald Dean ALC). Download and read the full amici brief in Tatum.