ERISA-Eighth Circuit Rules That Suit Must Be Dismissed For Failure To Exhaust Administrative Remedies

In Angevine v. Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan, No. 10-2832 (8th Cir. 2011), the plaintiff , Richard Angevine (“Angevine”), was appealing the district court’s dismissal of his claim for benefits under ERISA. The dismissal was based on the grounds that Angevine had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

Angevine had been a participant in the Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan (the “Plan”). The Plan includes a “Change in Control” provision, which makes a participant eligible for enhanced retirement benefits if his or her employment within the employer’s controlled group is involuntarily terminated within three years of a change in control. This enhancement consists of an additional five years of credited service and five years of age for purposes of determining pension benefits (the “+5/+5 enhancement”). An event which the parties agree constituted a “Change in Control” occurred. Following this event, Angevine received an email, indicating that he did not qualify for the +5/+5 enhancement. Angevine then filed this suit, in the form of a class action under ERISA, against his employer, the Plan and its trustee. But did Angevine exhaust his administrative remedies?

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that, before filing a suit to recover benefits or enforce rights under ERISA in federal court, a participant must exhaust the administrative remedies available under the particular plan. The exhaustion requirement is excused only when pursuing an administrative remedy would be futile or there is no administrative remedy to pursue.

In this case, Angevine’s allegations do not show that it would have been futile for him to pursue an administrative remedy under the Plan. The futility exception is narrow–the plan participant must show that it is certain that his claim will be denied on appeal, not merely that he doubts that an appeal will result in a different decision. At the time he filed this lawsuit, Angevine had made no attempt to pursue an administrative remedy and the Plan administrator had not denied any similar claims. Angevine’s sole basis for alleging futility is the email he received, stating that Angevine is not eligible for the+5/+5 enhancement. Even if the email provides some indication of the position the Plan administrator would take if Angevine had pursued an administrative remedy, it does not show with certainty that the Plan administrator would have denied Angevine’s claim for the +5/+5 enhancement upon either initial review or appeal. In this case, the Plan provided an administrative remedy that Angevine could have pursued. In sum, the facts alleged in Angevine’s complaint show neither futility nor the lack of an administrative remedy, and the Court concluded that he is required to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Plan before he can bring a civil action in federal court. As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision.

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