ERISA-Fifth Circuit Dismisses Suit For Failure To File Before The Expiration Of The Statute Of Limitations

In Serton v. Lockheed Martin Corporation, No. 11-60513 (5th Cir. 2012) (Unpublished Opinion), the plaintiff, Bobby Serton (“Serton”), was appealing the district court’s summary judgment disposing of his claim for disability benefits under his former employer’s retirement plan. The district court rendered summary judgment on the grounds that Serton both failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and failed to file suit before the close of the statute of limitations period.

Serton started working for Lockheed Martin Corporation (“Lockheed”) in 1984. In addition to regular retirement benefits, Lockheed’s retirement plan provides a disability pension in the event an employee suffers a qualifying disability. In June 1997, Serton suffered a back injury while working. The injury forced Serton to stop working for Lockheed on January 31, 1998. On January 30, 1998, Serton submitted an application for a disability pension under the retirement plan. On or about February 12, 1998, Lockheed mailed a notice of denial to Serton’s address. The notice stated a deadline for administrative appeal “within 60 days after the receipt of the notice of denial.” The parties agree that Lockheed mailed the notice to Serton’s address. But the record contains no further indication that it was received at that address, or that it ever came into Serton’s personal possession. Serton never pursued an administrative appeal of the denial of his benefits. Seerton was later incarcerated, and then was released in August 2002. Serton filed the instant suit for the disability pension over seven years later, on November 24, 2009.

In analyzing the case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that ERISA provides no specific limitations period for filing claims to enforce plan rights, and that the Court will apply analogous state statutes of limitation. The parties agree that the analogous statute of limitations is the three-year period found in Section 15-1-49 of the Mississippi Code. Mississippi’s discovery rule will toll the statute of limitations until the plaintiff should have reasonably known of his cause of action. But, under Mississippi law, plaintiffs must exercise reasonable diligence in determining whether an injury suffered is actionable, in order to benefit from the tolling provided by the discovery rule. A cause of action for wrongful denial of benefits owed under an ERISA plan accrues when a request for benefits is denied. In this case, that happened in February 1998. The most generous possible application of the Mississippi discovery rule to the circumstances of this case would toll the start of the three-year limitations period until August 2002, when Serton was released from incarceration. He does not allege, much less supply evidence, that he made any effort to discover what became of his application for the disability pension during the seven years between his release and the filing of this suit in November 2009.

As such, the Court concluded that Serton failed to file his case before the expiration of the statute of limitations. The Court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment on those grounds, without deciding the exhaustion issue.

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