In Van Steen  v. Life Insurance Company N.A., No. 16-1405 (10th Cir. 2018), the appeal arose out of the termination by Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”) of Carl Van Steen’s long-term disability benefits under Lockheed Martin’s benefit plan, which is subject to ERISA.  LINA appeals the district court’s finding that its decision to terminate Mr. Van Steen’s benefits was arbitrary and capricious, so that the district court overturned LINA’s decision.  Upon reviewing the case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) affirmed the district court’s ruling.

In this case, Van Steen was employed as a Systems Integration Business Analyst at Lockheed Martin Corporation.  As such, he was a participant in the Lockheed Martin Group Benefits Plan (the “Plan”), which is administered and insured by LINA.  In October 2011, Van Steen was physically assaulted during an altercation while walking his dog.  The assault resulted in a mild traumatic brain injury (“mTBI”) that impacted Mr. Van Steen’s cognitive abilities.  This cognitive dysfunction ultimately prevented him from functioning in his job.

Van Steen applied for and an initially began to receive long-term disability benefits from the Plan.  However, LINA later decided to terminate the benefits, on the grounds that the medical documentation does not show that Van Steen’s condition  precludes him from resuming his work.  Van Steen then filed suit, challenging the termination of his benefits. The case wound up before the Court.

In Allied Construction Industries v. City of Cincinnati, Nos. 16-4248/4249  (6th Cir. 2018), the City of Cincinnati  (the “City”) and Laborers International Union of North America, Local 265 (“the Union”) appeal the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Allied Construction Industries (“Allied Construction”), and the denial of the City’s and the Union’s motions for summary judgment. The district court held that three City ordinance provisions (“the Ordinance”) concerning bidder specifications for certain City projects were preempted by ERISA.

In this case, the Ordinance provides guidelines for selecting the lowest and best bidder on City Department of Sewers and Water Works projects. The portion of the Ordinance potentially subject to preemption was a requirement that the bidder certify whether it contributes to a health care plan, pension plan or retirement plan for employees that would work on the project.

In analyzing the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) held that the City was acting as a market participant attempting to purchase goods and services, not as a regulator, in enacting the Ordinance.  As such, the provisions of the Ordinance are not preempted by ERISA. Accordingly, the Court reversed the holding of the district court.

 

In Stevens Engineers & Constructors, Inc. v. Local 17 Iron Workers Pension Fund, Nos. 16-4098, 16-4099 (6th Cir. 2017), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that, under the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act, a part of ERISA, a construction industry employer who withdraws from a multiemployer pension plan owes withdrawal liability to that plan if the employer conducts work “in the jurisdiction of the collective bargaining agreement of the type for which contributions were previously required.” 29 U.S.C. § 1383(b)(2)(B)(i).  In accordance with this provision, the Trustees of the Iron Workers Local 17 Pension Fund assessed withdrawal liability against Stevens Engineers & Constructors, a withdrawing employer, claiming that Stevens’s activities on a certain construction project involved such work within the jurisdiction of their previous collective bargaining agreement.

The Court continued by noting, however, that an arbitrator and the district court below found that Stevens did not owe withdrawal liability to the Local 17 Pension Fund, because the work identified by Local 17 did not fall within the jurisdiction of the relevant collective bargaining agreement, and did not otherwise require contributions by Stevens.  The collective bargaining agreement instead allowed Stevens to assign jobs like the ones at issue to other trade unions, and a job did not trigger withdrawal liability to the Local 17 Pension Fund if, as here, it was properly assigned to a different union.  Local 17 offers additional arguments as to why Stevens owed withdrawal liability, but these are also unavailing.

Accordingly, the Court ruled that Stevens had not incurred any withdrawal liability to the Local 17 Pension Fund.

In Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Humble Surgical Hospital, L.L.C., No. 16-20398 (5th Cir. 2017), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) was asked to decide whether the district court erred when it granted judgment for Humble Surgical Hospital (“Humble”) on its claims for damages against the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company and its parent-corporation, Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company, (collectively, “Cigna”) under ERISA §§ 502(a)(1)(B) and 502(a)(3).

In analyzing the case, the Court said that the district court failed to apply the required abuse of discretion analysis; other courts have upheld Cigna’s interpretation of its insurance plans; and there was substantial evidence supporting Cigna’s interpretation. Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court judgement against Cigna. Moreover, as Cigna is not a named plan administrator, the Court reversed the district court’s award of ERISA penalties against Cigna. It vacated in part the district court’s dismissal of Cigna’s claims against Humble. It further vacated the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees and remanded the case for further consideration.

In Medina v. Catholic Health Initiatives, No. 16-1005 (10th Cir. 2018), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that ERISA generally exempts from its requirements “church plans”—employee-benefit plans established and maintained by churches for their employees. ERISA also extends that church-plan exemption to so-called principal-purpose organizations. A principal-purpose organization is a church-affiliated organization whose principal purpose is administering or funding a benefit plan for the employees of a church or a church-affiliated nonprofit organization.

In this case, Catholic Health Initiatives (“CHI”) is a Denver-based nonprofit organization created to carry out the Roman Catholic Church’s healing ministry. To do so, CHI operates 92 hospitals and numerous other healthcare facilities in 18 states. CHI offers a retirement plan for its employees, with more than 90,000 participants and beneficiaries, and nearly $3 billion in plan assets. The CHI plan is administered by the CHI and Affiliates Defined Benefit Plan Subcommittee (the “Subcommittee”), whose members are appointed and removed by CHI’s Board of Stewardship Trustees.

The district court held that CHI’s plan was a church plan that qualified for the ERISA exemption. On appeal, the Court agreed, concluding that CHI’s plan satisfies the statutory requirements for the church-plan exemption: CHI is a tax-exempt organization associated with a church, and the Subcommittee is a proper principal-purpose organization that is also associated with a church. The ERISA exemption, moreover, does not run afoul of the United States Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

In Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada v. Jackson, No. 17-3120 (6th Cir. 2017), Bruce Jackson married Bridget Jackson in 1993.  Sierra Jackson, their only child, arrived in 1995.  They divorced in 2006.  Under their divorce decree, Bruce and Bridget were required to maintain any employer-related life insurance policies for the benefit of Sierra until she turned 18 or graduated from high school.  At the time, Bruce had an employer-sponsored life insurance policy, under a plan subject to ERISA, that listed his uncle, Richard Jackson, as the sole beneficiary.  Bruce never changed the beneficiary of the policy to Sierra before he died in 2013.  Litigation ensued, and the district court ordered Sun Life to pay the life insurance proceeds to Sierra.

Upon reviewing the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) stated that the divorce decree suffices as a qualified domestic relations order that “clearly specifies” Sierra as the beneficiary under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(C), so that Sierra is entitled to the benefit from the plan specified in the divorce decree.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s holding.

In Babin v. Quality Energy Services, Incorporated, No. 17-30059 (5th Cir. 2017), Todd M. Babin worked for Quality Energy Services, Inc., until he became disabled in 2012.  He applied for short-term disability benefits through Quality Energy’s employee benefit plan.  His application was denied in February 2013.  In February 2014, he requested documents regarding both the short- and long-term disability plans, but he alleges that Quality Energy never sent those documents to him.  Babin ultimately filed suit against Quality Energy and its disability insurer in October 2015, alleging claims under ERISA for failure to pay benefits and failure to produce plan documents.

The parties settled the failure-to-pay-benefits claim, and Quality Energy moved for summary judgment on the failure-to-produce-documents claim.  The district court concluded that Babin’s claim was time-barred and granted summary judgment.  On appeal, Babin argues that Louisiana’s ten-year prescriptive period for personal actions should govern his claim for failure to produce documents under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(c).  Upon reviewing the case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) concluded, however, that Louisiana’s one-year period for delictual actions (that is, generally, breach of duty actions) applies and that Babin’s claim is time-barred. As a result, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling.

In Watkins v. Honeywell International Inc., No. 17-3032 (6th Cir. 2017), for almost 40 years, Honeywell International (or its predecessors) operated a manufacturing plant in Fostoria, Ohio.  Many union workers, including Ann Watkins and James Ulicny, spent most of their working years at the plant.  They retired at a time when Honeywell promised in a collective-bargaining agreement (the “CBA”) that it would pay for their health insurance.  But Honeywell’s plans for Fostoria changed.  When the CBA expired in 2011, Honeywell did not renew it.  It sold the plant and, later, stopped paying for its retirees’ healthcare.

The affected retirees filed suit seeking to require Honeywell to continue to pay.  The district court found that Honeywell’s promise to pay for healthcare ended when the CBA expired and dismissed the suit.

Upon analyzing the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that the CBA promises healthcare “for the duration of this Agreement,” and this promise means exactly that: Honeywell’s obligation to pay for its Fostoria retirees’ healthcare ended when the CBA expired.  As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case.

In Sikora v. UPMC, No. 1288 (3rd Cir. 2017),  the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that a so-called “top-hat” plan is “a plan which is unfunded and is maintained by an employer primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(1), 1051(2), 1081(a)(3). These plans need not comply with many of the substantive provisions of ERISA.  In this case, when Paul F. Sikora sought to recover pension benefits under ERISA, the district court held that he was not entitled to obtain such relief because he sought benefits under a top-hat plan.

Sikora appeals, arguing that the district court should have required defendants, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its Health System and Affiliates Non-Qualified Supplemental Benefit Plan (collectively, “UMPC”), to prove that plan participants had bargaining power before concluding that he participated in a top-hat plan. However, the Court said that plan participant bargaining power is not a substantive element of a top-hat plan. Therefore, the Court affirmed the District Court’s judgment.

In Micha v. Sun Life Assurance of Canada, Inc., No. 16-55053 (9th Cir. 2017), a panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Panel”) reversed the district court’s denial of appellate attorney’s fees under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(1) and remanded to the district court for calculation of a reasonable award of fees and costs in an ERISA case.

The Panel held that in analyzing a party’s request for appellate attorney’s fees under the Hummell test (enumerated by the Ninth Circuit in Hummell v. S.E. Rykoff & Co., 634 F.2d 446 (1980)), a court must consider the entire course of the litigation, rather than focusing exclusively on the prior appeal.  Weighing the five Hummell factors in light of all of a defendant’s conduct, from its wrongful denial of the plaintiff’s claim for ERISA benefits to its filing of a petition for a writ of certiorari, the Panel held that the moving party was entitled to attorney’s fees for the prior appeal, in which the Panel had affirmed an award of litigation attorney’s fees.

The Panel declined to consider the issue, not raised before the district court, whether fees-on-fees should be automatically awarded, without application of the Hummell test.