ERISA-Sixth Circuit Rules That An Employer Cannot Bring Suit Against Trustees Of A Multiemployer Plan For Negligent Management

In DiGeronimo Aggregates, LLC v. Zemla, No. 12-2095 (6th Cir. Aug. 14, 2014), the plaintiff, an employer who contributes to a multiemployer pension plan governed by ERISA, filed a complaint against defendants, the trustees of that plan, alleging that they negligently managed the plan, causing plaintiff to suffer an increased withdrawal liability when a majority of contributing employers withdrew from the plan. The district court granted defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, holding that there was no substantive basis for plaintiff’s negligence claim in any section of ERISA or under the federal common law.

After reviewing the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that it agreed with the district court. The plaintiff brings a claim of negligence. The Court said that, acknowledging that a negligence claim is not authorized by any section of ERISA, the plaintiff urges us to utilize our lawmaking powers under the federal common law to create a new negligence claim in favor of contributing employers.

The Court said, further, that is has previously held that the Court’s authority to create federal common law in this area is restricted to instances in which: (1) ERISA is silent or ambiguous; (2) there is an awkward gap in the statutory scheme; or (3) federal common law is essential to the promotion of fundamental ERISA policies. Here, none of these conditions are met. Rather, because Congress has established an extensive statutory framework and expressly announced its intention to occupy the field of private-sector pensions, and because the Court does not lightly create additional rights under the federal common law given these circumstances, the Court concluded that a contributing employer to a multiemployer pension plan has no cause of action against plan trustees for negligent management under the federal common law of ERISA pension plans. As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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