ERISA-Second Circuit Holds That The Benefits Manager In The HR Department Is Not An ERISA Fiduciary

In Tocker v. Kraft Foods North America, Incorporated Retirement Plan, No. 11-2445-cv (2nd Cir. 2012), the plaintiff, Edward Tocker (“Tocker”), was appealing a summary judgment granted by the district court in favor of the defendants. The only issue Tocker raises on appeal is whether one Robert Varone (“Varone”), the Benefits Administration Manager in the General Foods Human Resources Department, acted in a fiduciary capacity under ERISA when Varone researched and communicated to Tocker the benefits he would receive under the General Foods Retirement Plan for United States Salaried Employees (the “Plan”), if Tocker participated in the General Foods Workforce Reduction Program (“WFRP”).

In analyzing the issue, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that under the definition of “fiduciary” in section 3(21)(A) of ERISA, a person has fiduciary status only to the extent that he has or exercises the authority or responsibility described in that section (e.g., he has or exercises any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management or administration of the plan in question). A plan employee who performs ministerial tasks with respect to the plan, such as the application of rules determining eligibility for participation, preparation of plan communication materials, the calculation of benefits, and the maintenance of employee records, is not a fiduciary for purposes of ERISA. Those tasks do not require the exercise of discretionary authority and do not, therefore, implicate any fiduciary duty.

The Court said further that Varone was a middle-level manager without discretionary power, one of several employees who reported to the Director of Benefits, who in turn reported to the Vice President of Human Resources. In his capacity as Benefits Administration Manager, Varone’s responsibilities were administrative and included leading a staff of case administrators who calculated pension benefits, answered employee benefit questions, ensured that employees received benefit information and enrollment materials, and received employee benefit elections and recorded them. These are exactly the sort of ministerial tasks which do not give rise to fiduciary status under ERISA. Further, Varone did not become a fiduciary because he personally determined that benefits to which Tocker was entitle under the Plan and the WFRP.

As such, the Court concluded that Varone was not acting as a fiduciary for ERISA purposes in this case, and it affirmed the district court’s summary judgment.

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