An Overview of 401(k) Litigation, Courtesy of Chris Carosa's Excellent Interview with Jerry Schlichter
Chris Carosa of Fiduciary News has a tremendous interview with Jerry Schlichter, who has carved out an important niche litigating class action cases against 401(k) plans. Schlichter has litigated nearly all of the key excessive fee cases of the past few years, and currently has one pending before the Supreme Court. I discussed the case he currently has pending before the Supreme Court, Tibble v. Edison, in an article way back after it was decided by the trial court, where I contrasted the trial court’s analysis of the excessive fee issues to that provided around the same time by the Seventh Circuit. You can find that article here.
Chris’ interview with Schlichter is important and valuable reading. The opposite of a puff piece or personality profile, it contains some real thought provoking comments on 401(k) plans and the risks of fiduciary liability, and I highly recommend reading it.
Interestingly, I am speaking next week at ACI’s ERISA Litigation Conference in New York on conflicts of interest and other ethical issues arising with regard to ERISA litigation. Chris, in his interview with Schlichter, goes right to the heart of the question, when he turns the conversation to the “obvious and serious conflicts-of-interest” that can exist in 401(k) plans given their structure, compensation schemes, and the sometimes contradictory interests of fiduciaries, participants and service providers. In the interview, Schlichter provides a nice window for approaching the issue, when he presents three key rules that he believes fiduciaries should follow, which are:
1) Putting participants’ interests first – this should be the beacon that fiduciaries follow; 2) Developing a fully informed understanding of industry practices and reasonableness of service providers’ fees – in other words becoming a knowledgeable industry expert; and, 3) Avoiding self-dealing – you simply cannot benefit yourself in any way.
A great deal of conflicts of interest in this area of the law can be avoided simply by keeping those three principles first and foremost. Indeed, many of the conflict of interest issues that I will be discussing next week on a granular level are violations, on a macro level, of one or the other of those three ideas.
What Are the Costs and Risks to Administrators When District Courts Remand Benefit Denials Back to Them?
I have been writing a lot recently about big picture items, from Supreme Court cases over ERISA’s statute of limitations to the ability of plan sponsors to legally control litigation against them, and everything in between. It is worth remembering, however, that ERISA is a nuts and bolts statute that is litigated day in and day out, often by plan participants for whom the pension or lump sum or disability benefit at issue is the most important financial vehicle open to them. As a result, the details of litigating under the statute are of supreme importance to them.
One of the technical and less sexy areas of litigating these types of cases concerns the circumstances in which federal District Courts, in deciding benefit disputes, elect not to enter an order granting benefits to a participant because of flaws found in an administrator’s processing of a claim for benefits, but instead order the administrator to revisit the issue, in much the same way that an appeals court would remand a case back to a trial court for further proceedings. Issues arising from this type of a remand have become more and more important over the years, as the district courts have become more inclined to remand benefit denials back to administrators for further review as opposed to overturning a denial outright and awarding benefits. Partly, this has occurred because of years of defense lawyers arguing that this is the appropriate way of proceeding, with the courts eventually coming around. Defense lawyers pressed this point in benefit litigation for years before it really became the standard mode of operating for many trial judges, and the reason was simple. It gave the administrator two bites at the apple, in the sense of they would either win at the district court by having the denial upheld by the court or, worst case, would get to decide the issue again on remand. For administrators and plans, this beat the heck out of having a benefit decision up on summary judgment before a court with one of two possible outcomes, those being the court upholding the denial or instead the court granting the benefits to the participant. The remand argument, at a minimum, meant that a court considering a benefit denial on summary judgment would be invited to make any of three decisions, only one of which was truly and immediately detrimental to the administrator, which are: (1) uphold the denial of benefits; (2) overturn the denial and grant the benefits; or (3) remand the denial to the administrator to redo the whole thing.
My friend, colleague, and sometimes adversary, ERISA lawyer Jonathan Feigenbaum, recently won a pair of significant rulings from the First and Second circuits (he will have to try for the Third and Fourth in short order, so as to hit for the cycle) on two key issues arising out of remands of this nature to an administrator, one being the circumstances in which attorney’s fees can be awarded and the other being whether a plan or its insurer can appeal a district court order remanding the benefit dispute back to the administrator for further analysis. The two decisions, and the two issues, are interconnected in an interesting way. In one, the First Circuit’s ruling in Gross v. Sun Life, the Court held that such a remand order is sufficient success on the merits of the case to support an award of attorney’s fees. In the other, the Second Circuit’s opinion in Mead v. Reliastar Life Insurance Company, the Court held that such a remand order is not appealable, as it is not a final order.
Together, they form an interesting counter to the preference of administrators and their lawyers to seek a remand, rather than an outright reversal, when a district court finds problems with an administrator’s benefit determination. They stand for the proposition that administrators may be able to seek that relief, but if they get it, they will have to pay attorney’s fees to the participant and will not have an opportunity to test the remand order on appeal until the entire benefit dispute has been conclusively resolved once and for all at the district court level. Together, they represent an interesting doctrinal response to the preference of administrators to seek remand when problems are found with a benefit determination. Like all legal doctrines, it needs a catchy name – like the Younger doctrine is for abstention – if it is to get much traction in the legal literature. Let’s call it the “Feigenbaum doctrine.”
Q: Where Can You Sue an ERISA Plan? A: Where the Plan Sponsor Says
So the Sixth Circuit, in Smith v. Aegon, just ruled in favor of the enforceability of forum selection clauses in ERISA governed plans. Combined with the Supreme Court’s approval in Heimeshoff of contractual limitations in ERISA plans on the time period for filing suit, the approach of Smith basically hands control of the basic procedural aspects of litigating ERISA cases – when and where – to plan sponsors. In Smith, the Sixth Circuit provides a legitimate rationale for doing so, which is that the law already provides extensive freedom to plan sponsors with regard to whether, and if so under what terms, to offer benefit plans. This principle, incidentally, flows naturally from the original grand bargain that gave rise to ERISA itself, which was the premise that employers would be granted much leeway and limited potential liability to encourage them to make benefit plans available to employees.
That said, however, the dissent in Smith makes an important point, which is that the venue provisions of ERISA have long been construed by federal courts in the manner that will best allow participants to protect their rights, and not in a manner that will make it more difficult for them to do so. The dissent’s point in this regard is well taken. ERISA expressly provides that a plan participant can sue in any federal district court where the plan is administered, the breach took place, the defendant resides or the defendant may be found. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). Federal judges regularly find that this venue provision was intended by Congress to expand, rather than constrict, a participant’s choice of forum, so as to best protect plan participants. As one judge explained in a well-regarded opinion on the subject, Congress intended “to remove jurisdictional procedural obstacles which in the past appear to have hampered effective enforcement of fiduciary responsibilities under state law for recovery of benefits due to participants” and as a result, “ERISA venue provisions should be interpreted so as to give beneficiaries a wide choice of venue.” Cole v. Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Health and Welfare Fund, 225 F.Supp.2d 96, 98 (D.Mass. 2002) (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 93–533, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 4639, 4655; accord S.Rep. No. 93–127, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 4838, 4871).
Decisions such as Smith run to the opposite of this thinking and essentially say that, while that may be the case, a plan sponsor can opt out of that system of protections in favor of selecting a forum in the first instance, and naming it in the plan.
Tibble v. Edison at the Supreme Court
So, Tibble, Tibble, toil and trouble, to paraphrase (badly) Shakespeare (MacBeth, to be precise). And with that, I am going to launch into what I expect will be a number of posts concerning the Supreme Court’s decision to accept the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Tibble for review, limited to the application of ERISA’s six year statute of limitations. I tweeted, when the Court first accepted the case for review, that while I try to avoid the constant hyperbole about Supreme Court decisions (in which every time the Court does anything, lawyers issue client alerts and every other form of media under the sun, announcing that the sky is falling in the hope of drawing in readers), I did think that Tibble had the capacity to be a game changer.
And why is that? For a few reasons, one of which I will discuss right now. In the first instance, even leaving aside the type of excessive fee and revenue sharing dispute at issue in Tibble itself, the federal courts continue to struggle with the interpretation and application of ERISA’s six year statute of limitations. While written cleanly on its face, the statutory language is almost the walking embodiment of an insurance coverage concept, the latent ambiguity, which has to do with policy language that does not look ambiguous on its face (and thus would not appear to invoke various doctrines by which ambiguous policy language would be construed against the insurance company that issued the policy) but becomes ambiguous when applied to a particular fact pattern because, in application, it becomes unclear how the language should actually be applied. As Tibble itself reflects, the six year statute of limitation is open to varying interpretations when a court or litigant sits down and tries to apply it to a particular fact pattern, even though the language does not, as written, look like it should generate such confusion. The six year statute of limitations talks in terms of ending six years after the last date of breach or six years after the last day on which a breach of fiduciary duty could be remedied, which seems straight forward enough. The problem, though, commences when one tries to apply it to particular fact patterns. Give me a hypothetical, and I can give you two equally plausible arguments (at least on their face) as to when the six year statute of limitation ends under that hypothetical. Indeed, that is a fair description of exactly what occurs with most motions to dismiss filed on statute of limitations grounds in ERISA breach of fiduciary duty cases. Both the moving defendant and the responding participant are almost always able to present plausible sounding arguments over whether the six year statute of limitations period has been triggered, reflecting the lack of clarity and fact specific nature of the analysis under both the statutory language itself and the case law. Greater clarity on the application of the six year limitation period would be a boon to ERISA practitioners across the board.
I have a number of things I want to say about Tibble, a case which has been of interest to me all the way back to its relatively humble beginnings as a bench trial (when it was wrongly overshadowed in the legal media by the Seventh Circuit’s analysis at around the same time of many of the same issues) and I will be returning to it in detail over the next couple of weeks, as time allows. I plan to start with a discussion of the United State’s brief in support of granting cert, which offers an excellent jumping off point for a discussion of the merits of the case.
Santomenno v. John Hancock: Does It Matter That the 401(k) Service Provider Is Not a Fiduciary?
I wanted to comment at least briefly, or more accurately thematically, on the Third Circuit’s decision last week in Santomenno v. John Hancock, in which the Court held that John Hancock’s role as an advisor and service provider for a company 401(k) plan, by which it helped select fund options and administer participant investments, did not render it a functional fiduciary under ERISA for purposes of an excessive fee claim. It’s a well-reasoned and interesting opinion on a number of fronts, but what struck me as important about it relates more to broader issues than to the narrow details on which the decision itself turns. Personally, I think the 30 page decision itself does a wonderful job of laying out the issues and explaining them, something which is not always true of appellate decisions concerning the technicalities and complexities of ERISA class action cases, making the source document here the best place to turn for a full understanding of the details of the decision. This is not always the case, as some decisions of this ilk are simply too dense or otherwise difficult to penetrate to go first to the opinion itself, rather than to secondary sources – such as blogs and client alerts – for a full understanding of the case.
If you want to skip reading the case itself and instead go to commentary on it that sums up the central facts, Thomas Clark, who has staked out a firm position in the blogging world as one of the more scholarly analysts of fiduciary duty litigation, recommends some summaries in his post on the case. His recommendation is good enough for me in that regard, so I would refer you to his post and the summaries about the opinion for which he provides links.
For me, I was struck, as I noted, by some thematic, big picture aspects of the decision, and I wanted to discuss three of them in a post. First, in speeches, articles, presentations and even in small group meetings with clients, I often make the point that service providers to 401(k) plans are very good at structuring their contracts and relationships to avoid incurring fiduciary status. Most recently, in providing an update on ERISA litigation to an ASPPA conference, I discussed this point in the context of explaining why it is such a smart strategy: because it is simply not possible to predict the next theories of ERISA liability that the class action bar will pursue (did anyone foresee the rise of church plan litigation? I didn’t think so), the best strategy open to plan service providers is to avoid assuming fiduciary status at all, thus defanging new theories of liability without even knowing what they will be. The opinion in Santomenno provides a very detailed explanation of the contractual structure by which John Hancock avoids fiduciary status despite its intimate involvement with the plan’s assets and investment options, and as such it does a beautiful job of making my point; the Court demonstrates exactly the subtle, intelligent, thoughtful and carefully planned structure that insulates the service provider from incurring fiduciary status.
Second, I have long been a critic of a habit some courts have of, in a nutshell, jumping the gun and deciding complex ERISA cases prematurely, without first allowing the facts to develop to a sufficient level. I understand the impulse – ERISA litigation, and class action litigation in general, can be very expensive as well as disruptive to plan sponsors, and courts can often be sympathetic to the desire to avoid unnecessary litigation in circumstances where the likely outcome of the case can be anticipated at an early stage. I recently listened to one well-regarded federal judge address a law school class after a motion session, when he commented – in a different context entirely – on the fact that we have created, in the federal court system, a Maserati, a beautiful machine but one that most people can’t afford. Early resolution, such as at the motion to dismiss stage, of lawsuits that are unlikely to end up any differently later on is an antidote to this problem.
That said, however, this mindset can often lead to cases being decided too early, with regard to the question of whether a court has enough information to really get the nuances right. All too often, judicial opinions in ERISA cases issued at the motion to dismiss stage – or on appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss – end up reading more like a law review article than a judicial decision because, by being decided without much factual development having yet occurred, they end up being based more on hypothesis and assumptions about the world of service providers, investments, fees and the like than on the actual realities of those worlds. This is a problem with a simple solution, which is for courts to avoid making significant doctrinal rulings without first having a well-developed factual record. You can see this, but from the good side, in Santomenno, in which the Court had access to significant factual information, including the relevant contractual documents, and fashioned a ruling around – and dependent upon – those facts. It makes for a far more compelling and weighty decision than would otherwise be the case. It is for me, in any event, an approach that makes me give far more value to the Court’s reasoning and makes me far more likely to be persuaded by the Court’s reasoning.
Third, the case illustrates, and the Court even alludes to briefly, a point that I think is very important and which I often raise in a variety of contexts involving ERISA litigation. This is the question of whether systemically it matters whether John Hancock or a similarly situated service provider is or is not a fiduciary, and the answer is that, generally speaking, it does not matter. Sure, it may matter to the participants and their lawyers who are looking for a deep pocket, and it certainly may matter to the business model of the service provider, but it shouldn’t actually matter to the ERISA regulatory and enforcement regime itself. As I have written many times, including too often to count in this blog, ERISA is essentially a private attorney general regime, in which the idea is that private litigation and even just the threat of it enforces proper behavior within the relevant industry. That occurs here regardless of the fact that John Hancock and other such vendors are not considered, in this context, to be fiduciaries who can be held liable, as a breach of fiduciary duty, if the expenses and fees in a 401(k) plan are too high. And why is that? Because the system outlined in Santomenno is one in which the vendors may not be fiduciaries, but they are obligated to provide sufficient information and control to the actual fiduciaries – those appointed by the plan sponsor to run the plan – to allow the actual fiduciaries to make informed decisions about the investment options and the fees. Importantly, the system as viewed and approved of by the Santomenno court is one in which the actual plan fiduciaries bear financial liability if they don’t use the power granted to them by the vendor to police fees and expenses, thereby resulting in excessively high expenses. In that circumstance, the named fiduciary becomes liable for that problem. As a result, even without the service provider being deemed a fiduciary, the system still captures the risks of excessive fees and requires action – only by the plan sponsor and its appointees rather than by service providers such as John Hancock – to ensure that the problem is either avoided or remedied.
Real Knowledge, Fake Knowledge, and the Duty to Inquire: Time Limitations in ERISA Litigation
As a brief aside, while I continue to work on my promised blog post on the causation/damages aspect of fiduciary duty litigation in light of the Fourth Circuit’s recent and controversial opinion on the issue in Tatum, I thought I would pass along that my most recent article in the Journal of Pension Benefits has now been published. The article, “Real Knowledge, Fake Knowledge, and the Duty to Inquire: Time Limitations in ERISA Litigation,” discusses the discord in ERISA jurisprudence created by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Heimeshoff on contractual time limitations on filing ERISA claims. The article is in the Journal of Pension Benefits, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer 2014). I don’t yet have the right to publish the article itself, as it is embargoed by the publisher for a time after publication, but I do have a couple of courtesy copies on my desk. Feel free to contact me if you would like a copy and I will send you one.
Administrative Exhaustion, Futility and the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel
When it comes to claims of futility as an explanation for failing to exhaust administrative remedies in pursuing benefits under an ERISA governed plan, I have long summed up my feelings with a pithy rephrasing of Samuel Johnson’s famous line about patriotism, which I have turned into the somewhat flippant comment that “futility is the last refuge of the participant who is not entitled to benefits.” (I also like to use a similar line in insurance coverage litigation when lawyers for policyholders claim without factual support that an insurer has waived a policy term, noting – often to the court – that “waiver is the last refuge of the uninsured”). For those of you who are not especially familiar with the concept of administrative exhaustion in the context of ERISA litigation, ERISA governed plans are required to have certain internal structures for processing claims for benefits filed by participants and appeals by those participants of decisions to deny benefits under the plan. Only after those processes are concluded can a participant properly go into court and sue for benefits under the plan; if a participant goes to court without first having pursued those opportunities with the plan itself, then the participant’s claim is supposed to be dismissed for failure to exhaust the administrative remedies that were available to the participant within the plan itself.
The obligation on the part of participants to exhaust plan remedies before filing suit is stringently applied by the courts, and, naturally, in the way that physics teaches that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, lawyers representing participants have developed certain arguments around the application of that rule. One of those is the concept of futility, or the idea that a participant should not have to exhaust administrative remedies if the plan was clearly going to deny the requested benefits, thus making the pursuit of those administrative remedies a futile act. The law, it is said, does not require futile and wasteful action, and thus does not require a participant to pursue all avenues to collect benefits that a plan may grant if there is no question the plan administrator will never award those benefits.
Futile, in this circumstance, really means futile, however. It does not mean the plan administrator was unlikely to grant the benefits, nor does it mean that the participant believed it was futile to seek benefits. Instead, it means that the evidentiary record must establish to the satisfaction of the court that, in fact, there was no possibility the benefits would ever be awarded, no matter what information was provided to the plan and its administrator. Rob Hoskins, on his excellent ERISABoard.com, has a summary of a new decision out of the Southern District of West Virginia that emphasizes this exact point, with the Court finding that the participants did not submit enough evidence to allow the Court to actually find that benefits would not be awarded under any circumstances and that the failure to exhaust administrative remedies could not be excused away by claims of futility. This was the case even though at least one of the plaintiffs had allegedly been directly told that benefits would not be awarded even if a claim for benefits was submitted.
The case nicely highlights how high the bar is to prove futility in this context, and raises the question of what then would be enough to prove futility. Many lawyers often find that a hard question to answer, for the specific reason that most lawyers have never actually had a case in which the opportunity to recover benefits voluntarily from a plan was so futile that, in fact, futility could be proven for these purposes. When I say this, I do not mean to mock the lawyers themselves, but mean simply to point out how rare it is to see a circumstance in which the facts actually bear out a claim of futility in this context.
For myself, though, I can answer the question, and I usually do so by reference to a case I handled in which the plan administrator had used multiple ancillary proceedings and disputes to make clear that, under no circumstance, was the participant ever going to be paid the benefits in question. The ancillary disputes concerned related workplace agreements, including a non-competition provision, that perfectly paralleled the terms that had to be satisfied in the benefit plan for benefits to be awarded. Thus, as a factual matter, the decisions on the ancillary disputes pre-ordained what the decision would be from the plan administrator with regard to any claim for benefits under the ERISA governed plan in question. This fact pattern is what a valid claim of futility in response to a defense of failure to exhaust plan remedies looks like, and it illustrates how high the bar is to successfully press such a claim.
Tatum v. RJR Pension Investment Committee: What it Teaches About Fiduciary Obligations
Somehow, RJR Nabisco has always been fascinating, from beginning to now. There must be something about combining tobacco and Oreos that gets the imagination flowing; maybe its the combination of the country’s most regulated consumer product with the wonders of possibly the world’s favorite cookie. Heck, its birth even birthed a book and then, in turn, a movie starring James Garner, whose mannerisms, in the guise of Jim Rockford, are imbedded to at least a slight degree in the personality of every male my age. Ever watch a late forties/early fiftyish lawyer try a case in front of a jury? Watch closely, and you will see at least a little Rockford in the persona.
Now, in the guise of a Fourth Circuit decision over breaches of fiduciary duty involving company stock funds, RJR Nabisco has become a touchstone for ERISA litigators as well. There are a number of takeaways and points of interest in the decision, which you can find here, and the decision has generated no small number of thoughtful commentaries over the past few weeks, some of which you can find here, here, here and here. Without repeating the yeoman’s work that others have already done summing up the case, I am going to run a couple of posts with my thoughts on two key aspects of the case.
Today, I wanted to address the question of the finding of a breach of fiduciary obligations, and I will, lord wiling and the creek don’t rise, follow that up with a post on the question of proving loss as a result of the breach. These are two interrelated issues in fiduciary duty litigation, and Tatum v. RJR has some interesting things to say, and to teach, about both.
Initially, as everyone knows, you cannot have a breach of fiduciary duty recovery without a breach of fiduciary duty. Here, the Court found a breach of fiduciary duty on the basis of the defendants’ quick and informal decision concerning whether to continue to offer company stock that was based as much as anything on myths and legends about holding company stock in a plan as it was on any type of a reasoned approach to the question. Concerned about the possible liability exposure under ERISA for holding an undiversified single company stock fund in a plan, a working group decided to eliminate the fund without actual investigation into the legal, factual, potential liability or other aspects of holding the fund. Further, they did so in a short meeting, without ever gathering any of the detailed information that would be relevant to making such a determination.
There is a real and important lesson here with regard to the manner of making any decisions with regard to plan investment options, and an additional one that is of particular significance with regard to a decision to eliminate an investment option, which was the event in RJR Nabisco that triggered potential liability. The general lesson is that the days of fly by the seat of your pants management of plan investment options are over (if they ever existed; people may have been doing it that way, but it was probably never legally appropriate to do so). Instead, a failure to properly investigate investment options, including using outside expertise to do so, has reached the point where it can essentially be considered a per se breach of fiduciary duty. It may not have that posture in the law, in the sense of pleading and proving it simply establishing the existence of a breach, but that fact pattern, at this point in time (and not simply because of the holding in RJR Nabisco, but because of a number of cases and legal developments leading up to the time of that ruling), will consistently lead to a finding of a breach.
The more specific lesson to think carefully about here is something very interesting, and to some extent ironic. The working group felt obliged to eliminate the investment option because of questions related to the liability issues of holding a non-diversified single company stock fund, but that is not the same question as whether it was in the best interests of the plan participants to hold, or to instead eliminate, that fund. It is the latter question, and not the former question which is primarily one that concerns the risks to the plan sponsor and those charged with running the plan, that is supposed to be at the heart of the decision making process when it comes to these types of issues. Fiduciaries must run a plan – subject to many limitations on that general principal – in the best interest of the plan participants, without regard to their own interests. That, in all areas of the law, is the basic premise and obligation of being a fiduciary. Here, the defendants’ fiduciary breach occurred because they failed to do that: they did not investigate or analyze the issue from the perspective of what was best for the participants but instead from the perspective of the risks to the plan sponsor and its designees (i.e., the fiduciaries).
When thought about that way, the irony becomes apparent. By being overly concerned about the liability risks of keeping the investment option, the defendants created liability exposure by getting rid of the investment option.
Notes on DRI's Upcoming Data Breach & Privacy Law Conference
It’s not possible to ignore data breach and cyber security issues anymore, even if you want to and even if, as a lawyer, you think it is outside your practice area and instead the responsibility of some other group of lawyers in your firm. I have written before on this blog about the significant importance of these issues to benefit plans and their vendors, as they control more personal financial and identifying data than almost any other entities operating in the United States economy. At this point, you cannot even open up the Wall Street Journal without coming across news of a major data breach or related legislative or industry activity. A couple of years ago I spoke nationally to a major financial and insurance company on the risks and the nature of insurance coverage for them, including under cyber policies (you can find my slides here), and things have simply ratcheted up exponentially since then.
Colleagues of mine at the DRI are hosting DRI's inaugural Data Breach & Privacy Law conference in Chicago on Sept. 11-12, 2014. The conference will cover everything from the Anatomy of a Cyber Attack to the Theories of Civil Liability for a Data Security Breach to the Insurance Coverage Issues Implicated in Data Breach Claims. You can find the brochure and registration materials here.
Of interest to me is the focus on insurance coverage issues, which was also the focus of my earlier talk on the issue of data breaches. It’s interesting to me because, as some of you may know from previous posts and articles or from hearing me speak, my view of insurance coverage law is animated by my more than quarter century experience working with it, going back to the tail end (that’s an insurance coverage pun, get it?) of the asbestos coverage wars and the start up of the environmental coverage wars. When you look back over the history of the field, coverage lawyers – especially on the policyholder side - were able to build huge practices in the ‘80s and ‘90s on the back of those types of big ticket exposures, and many have spent the decades since looking for the next big ticket coverage disputes that could sustain such practices, generally without finding anything comparable. Do you remember Y2K? Policyholder-side coverage lawyers were bulking up – at least in their marketing – in anticipation of a big boom in losses and related coverage disputes, but that boom went bust almost as soon as the calendar flipped. Some, incidentally, who had a long enough history in the industry anticipated that, as I can remember Jerry Oshinksy, who built one of the largest policyholder side practices of the asbestos/environmental coverage era, commenting in 1999 that Y2K would not generate the work driven by that earlier era. Data breach, though, may finally be that new area of liability that generates large amounts of coverage work that coverage lawyers have been waiting for since the Wellington Agreement came into being, the California Coordinated Asbestos Coverage trial ended, and Superfund prosecution wound down, given the scale of the breaches we now see on a regular basis.
Did the First Circuit Just Change its Test for Preemption?
Or did it just use a clever turn of phrase? More likely the latter, I think, but even if that is the case, it is absolutely a turn of phrase that is useful and important to know for anyone litigating an ERISA preemption issue in the First Circuit.
Historically, courts in the First Circuit have focused on two concepts in deciding whether a state law claim is preempted: (1) whether the state law cause of action seeks to supplement the causes of action available under ERISA itself; and (2) whether the state law claim requires consideration of the ERISA plan to decide the claim or would dictate specific terms or operational procedures for the plan. Two weeks ago, the First Circuit, in the case of Merit Construction Alliance v. City of Quincy, discussed the second concept by, in essence, applying a sliding scale analysis that considered how much impact the state law in question actually had on the ERISA governed plan, finding that too much equals preempted, while too little equals not preempted.
In addressing whether a city ordinance requiring bidders to establish an apprenticeship program was preempted, the First Circuit explained:
ERISA “supersede[s] any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). The Supreme Court has distilled the statute's “relate to” language into two independently sufficient alternatives: “a connection with or reference to” an ERISA plan will result in preemption. Shaw, 463 U.S. at 97. . . The battle here, as waged by the parties, focuses on the “connection with” component of the two-sided ERISA preemption calculus. . . .[N]ot every conceivable connection will support preemption. For example, state laws that merely exert an “indirect economic influence” on a plan do “not bind plan administrators to any particular choice” and, thus, do not come within ERISA's preemptive reach. Cal. Div. of Labor Standards Enforcement v. Dillingham Constr., Inc., 519 U.S. 316, 329, 117 S.Ct. 832, 136 L.Ed.2d 791 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). On the other hand, “state statutes that ‘mandate[ ] employee benefit structures or their administration’ ... amount[ ] to ‘connection[s] with’ ERISA plans” and are therefore preempted. Id. at 328 (final alteration in original) (quoting Travelers, 514 U.S. at 658). The path from influence to coercion amounts to a continuum and it is not always a simple task to determine where along this continuum a particular state law falls.
The Court then proceeded to analyze where on that continuum the city ordinance fell, for purposes of determining whether or not it was preempted.
I don’t believe this discussion of the continuum was intended to create a new test for preemption or to establish a new standard for analyzing the issue. There has always been an element, in First Circuit preemption analysis, of considering how closely a state law acts upon the operation or terms of an ERISA governed plan, and this discussion of the continuum seems to fit easily within that tradition. Nonetheless, looking at the question of whether a particular claim is preempted by analyzing where it falls on such a continuum is a handy and potentially persuasive manner of addressing the question. Anyone advocating for or against preemption in the First Circuit would be well-served by structuring the argument around where on that continuum the claim in question falls. It is an easy framework for the audience to grasp, while sufficiently malleable to allow a party to argue for a favorable placement on that continuum.