Claims and disputes relating to the management and administration of employer-sponsored retirement, health, welfare, and other benefit plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) are a fact of life for many employers, plan fiduciaries, and plan service providers. ERISA’s substantive requirements, as well as its civil enforcement scheme, are complex. The financial exposure for benefit plan−related litigation can be substantial, particularly in suits that challenge plan management, claims administration, or plan costs on a class-wide basis.
Drinker Biddle has a remarkable wealth of experience in successfully defending clients against the full array of ERISA-based claims, including:
- Obtaining the first dismissal, with prejudice, of an ERISA class action among a series of cases filed across the country by the same law firm alleging excessive fees and prohibited transactions in connection with asset-based fees charged 401(k) plan participants for robo-adviser investment advisory services.
- Representing a multibillion-dollar energy company in a lawsuit that challenged the calculation of its multiemployer plan withdrawal liability, alleging it wrongfully used interest rate assumptions that increased potential liability by more than $70 million.
- Defeating 401(k) plan participant claims for loss in value to company stock held in the participants’ individual accounts.
- Obtaining the first dismissals of ERISA class actions among a series of cases filed nationally against health benefit plan insurers and claims administrators that alleged violation of ERISA fiduciary duties and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, and asserted claims for benefits in connection with denial of plan coverage for “wilderness therapy” or “outdoor behavioral health” programs.
- Obtaining summary judgment in an ERISA class action that asserted breach of fiduciary duty in connection with a 24-month mental illness limitation on plan disability benefits.
- Obtaining summary judgments for multiple plan sponsors sued in ERISA class actions by plan participants who alleged violations of ERISA for modification of retiree health and welfare plan benefits.
- Defeating a motion for class certification filed on behalf of more than 1,000 group annuity contract owners who alleged ERISA, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), securities, and common law fraud claims.
- Successfully defending a wide variety of lawsuits for individual benefits and fiduciary breach claims seeking ERISA pension and welfare plan benefits, including life insurance, disability, death and dismemberment, and health benefits.
- Successfully challenging dozens of Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act (MPPAA) withdrawal liability assessments resulting in tens of millions of dollars in savings for employers.
- Representing multiple industry trade associations in filing numerous amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in federal appellate ERISA cases throughout the United States, including before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our most experienced attorneys have litigated ERISA issues for more than three decades. These attorneys have helped shape the judicial interpretation and application of key ERISA liability and remedial provisions over much of the statute’s history. In fact, our attorneys were directly involved in many of the most significant ERISA fiduciary liability cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. For example:
- Our lawyers represented amicus curiae American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) in two pivotal ERISA fiduciary cases before the U.S. Supreme Court: Harris Trust & Sav. Bank v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 510 U.S. 86 (1993), aff'g, 970 F.2d 1138 (2d Cir. 1992); and Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248 (1993), aff'g, 948 F.2d 607 (9th Cir. 1991).
- In Knudson v. Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Co., 534 U.S. 204 (2002), our lawyers acted as lead counsel for an insurer in a seminal case clarifying the relief available under ERISA section 502(a)(3). The case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by our partner James F. Jorden.
- Our ERISA litigators also represented amici curiae America’s Health Insurance Plans, the American Benefits Council, and the National Association of Manufacturers before the U.S. Supreme Court in Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., 547 U.S. 356 (2006), regarding the scope of relief available for fiduciary breaches.
Aside from litigation, more than two dozen lawyers in Drinker Biddle’s Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Practice Group provide advice and counsel with respect to ERISA regulatory issues, employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) issues, actuarial and tax issues, and state fiduciary and trust law issues, and we have substantial experience representing clients in audits, investigations, and other proceedings initiated by the United States Department of Labor, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and the Internal Revenue Service. Our ERISA litigation team often consults with these ERISA compliance attorneys who serve as additional subject matter experts. In addition, our ERISA litigation and compliance attorneys meet regularly to discuss emerging trends and to help clients anticipate issues, assess the impact of litigation developments, and position themselves to defend against such litigation. Collaborating on compliance and regulatory issues provides our ERISA litigators with a deep understanding of the law, which we draw upon to produce superior results.
Our ERISA Team comprises nationally recognized experts in the field of ERISA. We also pride ourselves on staying at the forefront of developments relating to our ERISA litigation and risk management practice. Three of our Washington, D.C. partners, James F. Jorden, Waldemar J. Pflepsen Jr., and W. Glenn Merten, are the editors of The Handbook on ERISA Litigation (4th ed. Wolters Kluwer), a leading treatise on ERISA litigation that Drinker Biddle partners first authored more than 20 years ago. Messrs. Pflepsen and Merten also co-author the chapter on “Class Actions” for the American Bar Association (ABA) treatise Managed Care Litigation (2d ed. BNA). Partner Kimberly A. Jones, resident in our Chicago office, is a contributing editor to Employee Benefits Law (4th ed. Bloomberg BNA) and co-author of The Handbook on ERISA Litigation chapters on “Plan Benefits Claims” and “Reporting, Disclosure and Notification Requirements.” Hartford partner Michael A. Valerio is co-author of the chapter on “Fiduciary Liability” in the current edition of The Handbook on ERISA Litigation and regularly writes about ERISA class action issues in ABA and other publications. Fred Reish, partner in our Los Angeles office, is nationally recognized for his ERISA financial services and compliance practice. Among other recognitions, Fred recently was featured on the cover of 401k Specialist Magazine, and he is a prolific author and regularly blogs at FredReish.com on issues facing the retirement industry. Washington, D.C. partner Brad Campbell, a former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits and former head of the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, is a recognized authority on employer-sponsored retirement plans.
In addition to our attorneys’ writings on ERISA issues and their participation each year at various industry and bar association events, Drinker Biddle hosts an ERISA Symposium each fall. The Symposium takes a deep, practical dive into recent developments and emerging issues in the ERISA retirement plan and financial services sphere and is attended by in-house counsel of insurance companies, recordkeepers, brokerage firms, investment advisers, and other service providers from across the country.
Our ERISA and Employee Benefits Litigation Practice exemplifies the firm’s collaborative approach to tackling our clients’ most critical legal and business challenges. Our national team of seasoned ERISA litigators works closely with experienced practitioners in other practice groups, including Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation; ERISA Financial Services, Investment Management, Corporate and Securities; Labor and Employment; and Insurance, with the overriding goal to most efficiently achieve our clients’ objectives in each matter.
Representative Litigation Engagements
- Beary v. ING Life Ins. & Annuity Co., 520 F. Supp. 2d 356 (D. Conn. 2007). Dismissal of putative class action seeking certification of nationwide class of all section 457 plan sponsors, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment claims based on receipt of “revenue-sharing” payments from mutual funds and fund advisers.
- Bodnar v. John Hancock Funds, Inc., No. 2:06-CV-087 (N.D. Ind. 2008). Partial summary judgment and subsequent settlement on ERISA claims of putative class representative alleging breach of fiduciary duty involving imposition of transfer adjustment factor upon stable value fund offered to 401(k) plan participants.
- In re Dynegy, Inc. ERISA Litig., 309 F. Supp. 2d 861 (S.D. Tex. 2004). Successful motion to dismiss for a 401(k) plan directed trustee in ERISA litigation similar to Enron litigation, where numerous 401(k) plan participants sued for damages caused by losses in the value of Dynegy stock held in their accounts.
- Goetz v. Voya Financial, Inc., et al., Case No. 17-cv-01289-GMS (D. Del. 2018). Currently defending ERISA excessive fee class action alleging breach of fiduciary duty and prohibited transactions regarding administrative and other fees charged in connection with servicing of 401(k) plans.
- Montoya v. ING Life Ins. And Annuity Co., 653 F. Supp. 2d 344 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). ERISA class action by current and former teachers and members of New York State teachers union against union and issuer of group annuity contract for alleged breach of fiduciary duties in connection with section 403(b) retirement plan. Successful motion to dismiss filed on grounds that school district’s retirement plan was a “governmental plan” exempt from ERISA.
- Montoya v. New York State United Teachers, 754 F. Supp. 2d 466 (E.D.N.Y. 2010). Class action by members of New York State teachers union and participants in section 403(b) retirement plan for alleged breach of fiduciary duty under New York common law based on endorsement fees and revenue-sharing payments. Successful removal to federal court and motion to dismiss based on preemption under the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA).
- Patrico v. Voya Financial, Inc., 2017 WL 2684065 (S.D.N.Y. 2017), 2018 WL 1319028 (S.D.N.Y. 2018). Motion to dismiss granted in putative ERISA class action alleging excessive fees and prohibited transactions in connection with asset-based fees charged for investment advisory services offered in 401(k) plans.
- Phones Plus, Inc. v. Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., Case No. 06-rc -01835-A VC (D. Conn. June 22, 2010). Putative nationwide class action brought by 401(k) plan sponsors against retirement plan service provider, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction claims under ERISA based on receipt of revenue-sharing payments from mutual funds offered on the service provider’s investment platform. Plaintiff also sought certification of a sub-class of plan sponsors that retained a co-defendant investment adviser that provided recommendations regarding investment options. Case settled while defendant’s motion for summary judgment and plaintiff’s motion for class certification were pending.
- Sadeh v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., Case No. 2:95-cv-03674-RSWL-AJW (C.D. CaI. 1997). Summary judgment obtained dismissing lawsuit brought by participants in 401(k) plan alleging breach of fiduciary duties under ERISA.
- Turner v. Talbert, 2009 WL 1683297, reconsideration denied, 2009 WL 2356662 (M.D. La. 2009). Certification denied in putative class action alleging breach of fiduciary duty in connection with failure on the part of the trustee of 401(k) plan to transmit employee contributions to the plan.
- Coleman Clinic, Ltd. v. Massachusetts Mut. Life Ins. Co., 698 F. Supp. 740 (C.D. Ill. 1988). Represented insurer in ERISA action where court held that an employer that has delegated its administrative duties cannot rely on its status as a plan administrator as a basis for standing to sue.
- Fenton v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 400 F.3d 83 (1st Cir. 2005). Appellate decision reversing district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of former employees who sought enhanced early retirement benefits under defendant’s ERISA-qualified pension plan.
- Fechter v. Connecticut General Life Ins. Co., 800 F. Supp. 182 (E.D. Pa. 1992). ERISA class action brought by employee participants seeking damages arising from the reversion of excess assets in the termination of employer’s defined benefit retirement plan; judgment entered after non-jury trial in favor of insurer, holding insurer was not a fiduciary under ERISA.
- Harper-Wyman Co. and Oak Industries, Inc. v. Connecticut General Life Ins. Co., 1991 WL 18467 (N.D. Ill. 1991). Denying certification of class of more than 1,000 defined benefit pension plan group annuity contract owners alleging ERISA, RICO, securities, and common law fraud claims.
- Harper-Wyman Co. and Oak Industries, Inc. v. Connecticut General Life Ins. Co., 1991 WL 285746, 14 E.B.C. 2644 (N.D. Ill. 1991). Granting partial summary judgment for defendant in putative class action and dismissing claims for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA brought by pension plan sponsor and administrators, holding issuer of guaranteed investment contracts was not a fiduciary under ERISA.
- Pinney v. AEGON Companies Pension Plan, Case No. 1:14-cv-00125-LRR, 2016 WL 951541 (N.D. Iowa Mar. 9, 2016). Putative ERISA class action filed in the Northern District of California but successfully transferred to Iowa based on the plan’s forum selection clause. On cross-motions for judgment, the Iowa district court ruled that the plaintiff was not entitled to benefits and that the claim was also time-barred.
- Rochester Radiology Assoc., P.C. v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 616 F. Supp. 985 (W.D.N.Y. 1985). Claims brought by retirement plan and trustees for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and violations of ERISA arising out of market value adjustment under group annuity contract dismissed with prejudice.
- Smith v. AEGON Companies Pension Plan, 769 F.3d 922 (6th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 136 U.S. 791 (2016). Enforced plan’s forum selection clause and obtained dismissal of participant’s action for benefits.
- Xerox Corp. v. California Life & Health Ins. Guar. Assoc., Case No. 2:94-cv-02074-R (C.D. Cal. 1995). Claims brought by Xerox pension plan against 16 state life and health guaranty associations dismissed with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim under ERISA.
- Ziegler v. Connecticut General Life Ins. Co., 916 F.2d 548 (9th Cir. 1990). Affirming district court’s judgment on the pleadings and dismissal of lawsuit brought by pension plan administrators claiming breach of ERISA fiduciary duties in connection with transfer of assets upon termination of plan, where ERISA preempted state law claims and ERISA claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
- Defended large automobile manufacturer in several lawsuits challenging calculation of defined benefit claims
- Doe v. Hartford Life and Accident Ins. Co., Case No. 05-2512 (D.N.J. 2008). Summary judgment granted to insurer in putative ERISA class action asserting breach of fiduciary duty in connection with 24-month mental illness limitation on benefits.
- H.H. v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 342 F. Supp. 3d 1311 (S.D. Fla. 2018). Motion to dismiss granted for employee health benefit plan insurer and claims administrator in putative nationwide class action filed on behalf of ERISA plan participants and beneficiaries alleging violation of ERISA fiduciary duties, Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, and claims for benefits in connection with denial of plan coverage for “wilderness therapy” or “outdoor behavioral health” programs and similar types of alleged “intermediate” residential mental health treatment.
- Welp v. Cigna Health & Life Ins. Co., 2017 WL 3263138 (S.D. Fla. 2017). Motion to dismiss granted for employee health benefit plan insurer and claims administrator in putative nationwide class action filed on behalf of ERISA plan participants and beneficiaries alleging violation of ERISA fiduciary duties, Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, and claims for benefits in connection with denial of plan coverage for “wilderness therapy” or “outdoor behavioral health” programs. Second amended complaint was later dismissed with prejudice based on plaintiff’s failure to exhaust all available administrative remedies before filing suit, as required by the relevant plan terms.
- Achieved summary judgment for the subsidiary of a large manufacturing and engineering company in connection with the denial of a retiree medical benefit under ERISA.
- Obtained summary judgment for large food and beverage company in purported class action alleging improper reduction of retiree medical benefits.
- Obtained appellate court victory for large, multinational electronics company in class action lawsuit alleging improper reduction of retiree medical benefits.
- Halbach v. Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co., 561 F.3d 872 (8th Cir. 2009). Obtained appellate ruling that district court erred in finding that amendments by plan sponsor to terminate medical coverage for long-term disability claimants violated ERISA, but affirming that the relief sought by plaintiff class was compensatory in nature and not available under ERISA.
- McLafferty v. BASF Corporation, Case No. 14-4094 (6th Cir. Feb. 19, 2016). Obtained appellate court victory affirming dismissal of plaintiff’s lawsuit as untimely because his ERISA disability claim accrued when there was a clear repudiation of benefits 30 years earlier.
- Summary judgment granted to plan and claim administrator in lawsuit alleging breach of fiduciary duty for denying disability benefits.
- Motion to dismiss granted to insurer because plaintiff’s disability claim lawsuit was untimely pursuant to the policy’s contractual limitations period.
- Cramer v. John Alden Life Ins. Co., 763 F. Supp. 2d 1196 (D. Mont. 2011). Dismissal of putative class action, holding that the speculative possibility of future harm is insufficient to confer standing, the insurer was not the plan administrator, and the assertion that a subrogation claim exists is not equivalent to enforcement of a right of subrogation.
- Logan v. Union Security Ins. Co., 2015 WL 3745047 (C.D. Cal. 2015). Putative ERISA class action involving claim for benefits under group accidental death and dismemberment coverage. All but one cause of action in amended complaint dismissed on Rule 12 motion. Case subsequently settled on individual basis.
- Summary judgment granted to trustees of multiemployer plan and against third-party service provider that breached fiduciary duty and mishandled plan assets.
Recent Trade Association Representations
- Our lawyers also have served as ERISA counsel to ACLI and other major insurance trade associations such as America’s Health Insurance Plans and the National Organization of Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Associations. In recent years, our attorneys have authored or collaborated on numerous amicus efforts, including
- Edmonson v. Lincoln National Life Ins. Co., 725 F.3d 406 (3d Cir. 2013), cert. denied, 572 U.S. 1114 (2014). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of group life insurer’s successful effort to obtain affirmance of district court’s grant of summary judgment in putative ERISA class action alleging fiduciary breach for insurer’s use of retained asset accounts (RAAs), where plan terms were silent regarding method of payment of life insurance benefits.
- Healthcare Strategies, Inc. v. ING Life Ins. and Annuity Co., No. 12-4092 (2d Cir. 2012). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of 401(k) retirement plan service provider’s petition for interlocutory appellate review, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f), of district court’s order certifying a nationwide plan administrator class under Rule 23(b)(3) in ERISA litigation involving alleged mutual fund “revenue-sharing” fees received by service provider.
- Leimkuehler v. American United Life Ins. Co., 713 F.3d 905 (7th Cir. 2013), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1197 (2014). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of 401(k) retirement plan service provider’s successful effort to obtain affirmance of district court’s grant of summary judgment in putative ERISA class action asserting fiduciary claims arising from service provider’s receipt of revenue-sharing fees from mutual fund investment advisers and/or distributors. U.S. Department of Labor filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiff plan trustee, to which ACLI’s brief responded.
- McCaffree Fin. Corp. v. Principal Life Ins. Co., 811 F.3d 998 (8th Cir. 2016). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of district court’s grant of defendant 401(k) retirement plan service provider’s motion to dismiss plaintiff plan administrator’s complaint in putative ERISA class action involving allegedly excessive asset-based fees charged by service provider. District court held that complaint did not plausibly allege fiduciary responsibility with respect to service provider’s receipt of fees at issue. U.S. Department of Labor filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiff, to which ACLI’s brief responded in part.
- Merrimon v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 758 F.3d 46 (1st Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 1182 (2015). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of group life insurer’s successful appeal overturning district court’s fiduciary liability ruling and class-wide monetary award in ERISA litigation involving insurer’s use of RAAs to pay life insurance benefits. First Circuit held that insurer’s general account funds backing the RAAs were not plan assets and that insurer did not breach any fiduciary duty under ERISA by paying benefits through RAAs, where this method of payment is called for under plan terms.
- Nationwide Life Ins. Co. v. Haddock, 460 F. App’x 26 (2d Cir. 2012). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of 401(k) retirement plan service provider’s successful appeal of district court’s class certification order in ERISA litigation involving alleged mutual fund revenue-sharing fees received by service provider. Second Circuit vacated the district court’s class certification order in light of U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, holding that the plan-specific allocation of any disgorged funds “would require the type of non-incidental, individualized proceedings for monetary awards that Wal-Mart rejected under Rule 23(b)(2).”
- Otte v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., No. 11-1973 (1st Cir. 2013) (appeal voluntarily dismissed). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of group life insurer’s appeal seeking to overturn district court’s class certification order in ERISA litigation involving insurer’s use of RAAs to pay life insurance benefits. Case settled following oral argument but prior to appellate disposition.
- Rochow v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 780 F.3d 364 (6th Cir. 2015). Represented ACLI and other industry, business, and employer groups as amici curiae in support of successful appeal before Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, relating to district court’s profit disgorgement award against claim administrator/group insurer in ERISA disability benefits litigation. Sixth Circuit held that plaintiff could not obtain an additional monetary remedy as “appropriate equitable relief” under ERISA section 502(a)(3), where plaintiff had already obtained an adequate “make whole” award for defendant’s wrongful denial of benefits under ERISA section 502(a)(1)(B). This decision followed representation of ACLI as amicus curiae in support of insurer’s successful petition for en banc review of Sixth Circuit panel’s decision affirming disgorgement award.
- Rozo v. Principal Life Ins. Co. No. 18-3310 (8th Cir. 2019). Representing ACLI as amicus curiae in support of affirmance of summary judgment in favor of defendant insurer in ERISA class action involving defendant’s allegedly improper retention of general account investment earnings in connection with guaranteed/fixed-rate investment option offered in 401(k) plans.
- Teets v. Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co., 286 F. Supp. 3d 1192 (D. Colo. 2017), aff’d, 921 F.3d 1200 (10th Cir. 2019). Represented ACLI as amicus curiae in support of successful motion for summary judgment filed by defendant insurer in ERISA class action involving defendant’s allegedly improper retention of general account investment earnings in connection with guaranteed/fixed-rate investment option offered in 401(k) plans. Also represented ACLI as amicus curiae in successful support of affirmance of summary judgment in plaintiff’s appeal to the Tenth Circuit.
- United States ex rel. Loughren v. UNUM Group, 613 F.3d 300 (1st Cir. 2010). Represented America’s Health Insurance Plans and the American Benefits Council as amici curiae in support of insurer’s appeal in which First Circuit vacated district court judgment in favor of plaintiff qui tam relator in federal civil False Claims Act litigation involving private long-term disability insurance industry practices relating to insureds’ applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.