Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in ERISA
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Canter worked as a premises technician, installing wires, lifting heavy loads, and climbing tall ladders. After he began to suffer from severe migraines, lightheadedness, and dizziness, Canter concluded that he no longer could perform that work. He applied for short-term disability benefits in February 2017 through an AT&T plan. The plan administrator granted benefits for a few months, but AT&T terminated benefits after an independent medical reviewer concluded that Canter’s medical tests were normal and that his symptoms had improved. After Canter unsuccessfully appealed this decision using AT&T’s internal processes, he sued under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1132.The district court granted the defendants summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision but reversed the court’s award of $181 in pro hac vice fees to the defendants as not taxable “costs” under 28 U.S.C. 1920. Extensive medical testing consistently yielded normal results, even though the medical providers and reviewers thought that a significant problem would have shown up in one or more concrete, physiological ways. Canter himself reported that he was experiencing improvement. View "Canter v. AT&T Umbrella Benefit Plan No.3" on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA, Insurance Law
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RiverStone operates quarries in three midwestern states. Under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), RiverStone contributed to the Fringe Benefit Funds for certain employees, based on hours worked by the members of the bargaining unit. The CBA expired in May 2016. Nothing in the agreement imposes on RiverStone an obligation to make contributions after the agreement. RiverStone sought a declaratory judgment that it had no obligation to make contributions to the employees’ pension fund on behalf of individuals hired after the CBA expired. The Funds filed a counterclaim.The district court granted RiverStone summary judgment, holding that RiverStone did not have a contractual duty to contribute to the Funds on behalf of the new employees and that it lacked jurisdiction to evaluate noncontractual sources of liability, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) so the dispute fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The dispute is over an obligation that does not arise under any contract. Once a CBA has expired, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1145, does not confer jurisdiction on the district court to determine whether the employer’s failure to make post-contract contributions violated the NLRA. View "RiverStone Group, Inc v. Midwest Operating Engineers Fringe Benefit Funds" on Justia Law

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Ten Pas worked as a tax partner at the McGladrey accounting firm until he suffered a cluster of cardiovascular events in 2014. He receives total disability benefits under McGladrey’s group long-term disability insurance policy, administered by Lincoln National. Ten Pas, arguing that he is entitled to a larger monthly benefit under the policy, filed suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B). The policy calculates benefits based on a percentage of an employee’s salary on “the last day worked just prior to the date the Disability begins.” Lincoln used Ten Pas’s salary as of August 31, 2014, the date of his heart attack and the first of several consecutive hospital stays. Ten Pas argues that his determination date came on or after September 1. The short difference matters because Ten Pas received a substantial raise from McGladrey on that date.The district judge granted Ten Pas summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit reversed. Lincoln’s benefits determination cannot be disturbed unless Ten Pas can show that it was arbitrary or capricious. He has not met this demanding standard. The decision rests on a reasonable construction of the contract and an evaluation of Ten Pas’s medical records. View "Ten Pas v. Lincoln National Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA
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Plaintiff filed a class action complaint under the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (ERISA) against the fiduciaries of the retirement plan offered by his former employer, Triad, for alleged financial misconduct.The Seventh Circuit concluded that the ERISA provisions that plaintiff invokes have individual and plan-wide effect. However, the arbitration provision in Triad's defined contribution retirement plan precludes relief that "has the purpose or effect of providing additional benefits or monetary or other relief to any Eligible Employee, Participant or Beneficiary other than the Claimant." Therefore, this provision prohibits relief that ERISA expressly permits. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's denial of Triad's motion to compel arbitration or, in the alternative, to dismiss. View "Smith v. Board of Directors of Triad Manufacturing, Inc." on Justia Law

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While Appvion was in financial distress, 2012-2016, the defendants allegedly fraudulently inflated stock valuations to enrich the directors and officers, whose pay was tied to the valuations of its ERISA-covered Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). They allegedly carried out this scheme with knowing aid from the ESOP trustee, Argent, and its independent appraiser, Stout. Appvion directors allegedly provided unlawful dividends to its parent company by forgiving intercompany notes. Appvion filed for bankruptcy protection. Appvion’s bankruptcy creditors were given authority to pursue certain corporation-law claims on behalf of Appvion to recover losses from the defendants’ alleged wrongs against the corporation; they brought state law claims against the directors and officers for breaching their corporate fiduciary duties; alleged that Argent and Stout aided and abetted those breaches, and asserted state-law unlawful dividend claims. The defendants argued that their roles in Appvion’s ESOP valuations were governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which preempted state corporation-law liability and that, despite their dual roles as corporate and ERISA fiduciaries, they acted exclusively under ERISA when carrying out ESOP activities, 29 U.S.C. 1002(21)(A). The district court agreed and dismissed.The Seventh Circuit reversed in part. ERISA does not preempt the claims against directors and officers. ERISA expressly contemplates parallel corporate liability against those who serve dual roles as both corporate and ERISA fiduciaries. ERISA preempts the claims against Argent and Stout. Corporation-law aiding and abetting liability against these defendants would interfere with the cornerstone of ERISA’s fiduciary duties—Section 404's exclusive benefit rule. View "Halperin v. Richards" on Justia Law

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Algozine employed members of the Union and, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, was required to submit contributions to three employee benefit funds on behalf of employees who performed covered work: the Welfare Fund; the Pension Fund; and the Annuity Fund. All are multi-employer benefit funds under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. 1002. Algozine fell behind on its contributions and filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition.The Funds filed separate proofs of claims under 11 U.S.C. 507(a)(5) for unpaid contributions. Section 507(a) affords priority status up to a specified point to certain types of unsecured claims, including claims for unpaid contributions to an employee benefit plan. The Welfare Fund sought $21,334.30, the Pension Fund sought $18,453.40, and the Annuity Fund sought $11,607.16. Algozine argued that the total should be reduced to $5,556.34 because the Funds erred by applying the priority cap that appears in section 507(a)(5) to each individual Fund’s claims rather than the Funds’ aggregate claims. The bankruptcy court, district court, and the Seventh Circuit agreed with the Funds that section 507(a)(5) does not require assessing distinct benefit plans collectively. View "In re: Algozine Masonry Restoration, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Bankruptcy, ERISA
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Gradei’s withdrew from a multi-employer pension plan, asserting that it had ceased all operations covered by the governing multi-employer collective bargaining agreement and was no longer required to contribute to the Fund, which sought to collect $221,932.55 in withdrawal liability. Gradei’s did not respond to payment demands and filed for bankruptcy. The Fund sued the Pitellos (Gradei’s owners) and another corporation owned by the Pitellos (GX), on the theory that they were businesses under common control. The district court found that Gradei’s and GX were conducting business rent-free on property owned by the Pitellos, which was enough to establish common control.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1381(a), 1404(a) withdrawal liability applies to the withdrawing employer and to “all trades or businesses ... under common control” with that employer. The court rejected Pitello’s argument that the property was only a passive investment. It is possible to rebut the presumption that leasing property to a withdrawing employer is a business but the Pitellos failed to do that. The court noted the economic equivalence between a return on investment in the form of rent collection and return on investment in the form of dividends or salaries made possible by the absence of any rent obligation. The land is part of the business. View "Local 705 International Brotherhood of Teamsters Pension Fund v. Pitello" on Justia Law

Posted in: Business Law, ERISA
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Bell employees participated in a benefit plan, completely funded by contributions from the members of about 69 unions. The plan is administered by a Board of Trustees, governed by Trust Indenture documents that provide that plan members must contribute a fixed amount unless a member’s union has set a different contribution amount. In 2008, Bell’s union voted to increase its members’ contributions from 6% to 8% of their weekly wages. In 2014, the Trustees revealed that the plan’s financial health was deteriorating. Bell employees unsuccessfully petitioned the union to reduce their compelled-contribution rate. In 2016, Bell's collective-bargaining contract expired. During negotiations, the employees again unsuccessfully requested that the union reduce their required contribution rate. Other members of the union, working for a different employer, were either contributing at lower rates or not contributing; they were originally part of a different union that did not participate in the plan. Contract re-negotiations were unsuccessful. The employees lost certain benefits that are available only to active contributors to the plan.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit under 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(D). The Trustees’ action, interpretation of the Trust Indenture, was not a breach of fiduciary duty. The Indenture can be reasonably interpreted as permitting different segments within a union to contribute to the plan at different levels. Even if the Union controlled the amount of revenue coming into the plan, it did not act as fiduciary but as a settlor. View "Bator v. District Council 4, Graphic Communications Conference" on Justia Law

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Doctors removed Haynes’s gallbladder. She was injured in the process and required additional surgery that led to more than $300,000 in medical expenses. Her father’s medical-benefits plan (the Fund) paid these because Haynes was a “covered dependent.” The plan includes subrogation and repayment clauses: on recovering anything from third parties, a covered person must reimburse the Fund. Haynes settled a tort suit against the hospital and others for $1.5 million. She and her lawyers refused to repay the Fund, which sued to enforce the plan’s terms under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(3). Haynes argued that she did not agree to follow the plan’s rules and was not a participant, only a beneficiary. The district judge granted the Fund summary judgment and enjoined Haynes and her lawyer from dissipating the settlement proceeds. The Fund had named each of them as a defendant.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. ERISA allows fiduciaries to bring actions to obtain “equitable relief … to enforce ... the terms of the plan.” The nature of the remedy sought—enforcement of a right to identifiable assets—is equitable. Having accepted the plan’s benefits, Haynes must accept the obligations The absence of a beneficiary’s signed writing, regardless of the beneficiary's age, does not invalidate any of the plan’s terms. View "Central States, Southeast & Southwest Areas Health & Welfare Fund v. Haynes" on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA, Insurance Law
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Under the Retirement Plan, participating Northwestern University employees can contribute a portion of their salary to their account and Northwestern makes a matching contribution. Employees participating in the Voluntary Savings Plan also contribute a portion of their salary, but Northwestern does not make a matching contribution. Both plans allow participants to choose the investments for their accounts from options assembled by the plans’ fiduciaries. Northwestern is the administrator and designated fiduciary of both plans. The plaintiffs sued Northwestern under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1001 (ERISA).The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the amended complaint and rejection of the plaintiffs’ demand for a jury trial. Under the plans, no participant was required to invest in any particular product. Any participant could avoid the alleged problems with certain products--record-keeping fees and underperformance. Northwestern provided a wide range of investment options and provided prudent explanations for the challenged fiduciary decisions involving alleged losses. There was no ERISA violation with Northwestern’s record-keeping arrangement; the plaintiffs identified no alternative recordkeeper that would have accepted any fee lower than what was paid nor have they explained how a hypothetical lower-cost recordkeeper would perform at the level necessary to serve the best interests of the plans. View "Divane v. Northwestern University" on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA