ERISA and Employee Benefits Litigation

Litigation

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Our full-time ERISA litigators have significant experience handling all forms of ERISA and other employee benefits litigation. From complex class action to denial of benefit claims, we litigate all aspects of ERISA in our representation of plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries, insurers of plan benefits and, as applicable, third party administrators and other plan vendors. We regularly litigate issues arising from fiduciary duty violations, plan designs, amendments and terminations, ESOPs, health and welfare benefit plans and group life insurance plans. We also have extensive experience in denial-of-benefits claims and frequently represent employers, plan administrators and others in benefit disputes under pension plans, health and welfare benefit plans, disability plans, AD&D and group life insurance plans.

We have litigated all issues in such cases ranging from the substantive questions of whether fiduciary duties were breached or benefits are due to more “procedural” questions, such as the scope of ERISA’s preemption and civil remedy provisions. For example, we successfully handled the leading Third Circuit case on the scope of ERISA’s “saving clause” and “conflict preemption” under ERISA’s exclusive civil remedies. Barber v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of America, 383 F.3d 134 (3d Cir. 2004) (holding that ERISA preempts claims under Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute).

We also routinely defend clients in state law disputes involving ERISA-exempt employee benefit plans (such as governmental plans) or in “individual” insurance product cases where, in states such as Pennsylvania, bad faith claims are frequently asserted.

In an era when many litigators have never faced a trial, our ERISA litigators are experienced trial attorneys. We have successfully tried many ERISA cases and have extensive experience defending our clients through appellate review. We have litigated cases on the administrative level, in arbitration and in state and federal courts.

We are also routinely called upon by our clients for risk management advice to avoid litigation or maximize prospects for success in areas such as early retirement windows, reduction of retiree health benefits and communications to participants implicating fiduciary obligations.

Fiduciary Duty Disputes

Fiduciaries face increasing exposure to claims involving investment of plan assets. We have represented several clients in multi-million dollar ERISA actions raising issues of prudence or suitability of investment strategies, diversification of plan investments and compliance with investment guidelines.

Another area where fiduciary duty claims frequently arise concerns business decisions that impact employee benefit plans. We have successfully represented employers and others in cases involving:

  • Notice and disclosure duties of fiduciaries
  • Prohibited transaction claims
  • Statutory penalty claims
  • Conversion of plans between defined benefit and defined contribution structures
  • Partial terminations from layoffs or other corporate events
  • Cases arising from plan mergers or transfers of assets
  • Challenges to benefit design aspects of ERISA welfare benefit plans
  • Wrongful termination claims under ERISA §510
ERISA Class Action Litigation

Stevens & Lee has substantial experience in defending ERISA class actions. Our experience with ERISA class actions includes claims involving both pension and welfare benefit plans in areas as diverse as challenges to mergers of pension plans to the administration of prescription drug benefits and disputes over plan subrogation rights and practices. In recent years we successfully defended a large health insurer in an ERISA class action challenging the insurer’s administration of its prescription drug benefits. We won a motion to dismiss and successfully represented the client in the subsequent Third Circuit appeal.

Denial of Benefit Disputes

We have handled hundreds of lawsuits in which one or more plan participants challenged a decision denying benefits under the terms of an ERISA plan. In this area, we have represented employers, plan administrators, insurers and others in benefit disputes involving pension plans, severance plans, health benefit plans, COBRA benefits, disability plans, AD&D and group life insurance plans.

Our experience has allowed us to develop a streamlined approach to denial-of-benefits disputes which emphasizes prompt, proactive steps to limit costly discovery based on the court’s typical obligation to focus primarily on the administrative record developed in the plan fiduciary’s review of the claim.

Department of Labor Investigations

Stevens & Lee has broad experience with Department of Labor investigations. Here, we have handled issues ranging from prohibited transactions to proper procedures for prudent investment policies. Our lawyers have excellent relations with Department of Labor investigators.

We have also been active in advocating our clients’ interests through the Department of Labor’s field assistance program. In one example, the Department of Labor issued Field Assistance Bulletin 2002-2 in which our lawyers were involved in both the investigation and in drafting the brief that led to the Department of Labor finding that the decision under review was not a prohibited transaction.

Top Hat Plans

We have handled numerous cases concerning true top hat plans as well as “failed” top hat plans. We successfully tried one such case in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, winning both the trial and the subsequent Third Circuit appeal. Such cases have involved disputes over:

  • Satisfaction of statutory and regulatory requirements for top hat plan status
  • Regulatory reporting requirements for top hat plans
  • Prudence, diversification and “churning” challenges to use of corporate-owned life insurance as an investment
Representative Cases
  • Saltzman v. Independence Blue Cross (3d Cir.) (ERISA class action) – Successfully defended a health insurer’s administration of ERISA prescription drug benefits before District Court and United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
  • Mallon v. Independence Blue Cross (E.D. Pa.) (ERISA class action) – Ongoing representation of a large health insurer in an ERISA class action challenging subrogation practices
  • Express Scripts, Inc. v. UFCW Local 1776 and Participating Employers Health and Welfare Fund (Fiduciary Duty) – Represented Taft-Hartley plan in American Arbitration Association proceeding, successfully pursuing counterclaim for breach of fiduciary duty and prohibited transactions resulting in seven figure award for client
  • Alco Industries Inc. v. Wachovia Corp (E.D. Pa.) (Fiduciary Duty) – Defended investment manager against claims by sponsor of defined benefit plan seeking over $60 million in damages based on alleged breach of fiduciary duties to invest prudently and adequately diversify plan’s investment portfolio, obtaining favorable settlement shortly before trial
  • Pressman-Gutman,Co., Inc. v. First Union National Bank (E.D. Pa.) (Fiduciary Duty) – Retained in the middle of case to assume defense of claims for over $30 million in damages by sponsor of profit sharing plan based on investment manager’s alleged failures to invest plan assets prudently and with adequate diversification, obtaining favorable settlement for client
  • Das v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of America, 2007 WL 748671 (3d Cir.) – Summary judgment and successful defense on appeal of denial of disability benefits
  • Hite v. National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (D. Alaska) (Denial of Benefit) – Summary judgment on ERISA life insurance claim
  • Breon v. Sovereign Bancorp, Inc., 2008 WL 906488 (M.D. Pa.) (ERISA § 510) – Summary judgment in favor of a bank holding company against former employee’s ERISA § 510 claims
  • Moore v. Acme Corrugated Box Co., (3d Cir.) (Top Hat Plan) – Won trial over claim for allegedly “vested” benefits by proving that the plan was a “top hat” plan and successfully defended verdict in Court of Appeals
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