What Osberg v. Foot Locker Teaches About Equitable Remedies Under ERISA

Is Osberg v. Foot Locker a tipping point? Only time will tell, but it has that feel about it.

I have written extensively in the past on the orphan-like status of equitable remedies in ERISA litigation related to plan communications: all agree that a range of traditional equitable remedies is now open to participants, but courts have been very reluctant to adopt them, both doctrinally and as a practical matter, where the dispute concerns a disjunct between what a plan provides and what plan communications state. As I have written before, when participants in ERISA governed plans seek equitable relief, circuit courts of appeal seem intent upon reading in stricter requirements for equitable claims than exist in other areas of the law, and on enforcing existing elements of traditional equitable remedies more strictly than they do in other types of cases. I have argued that, underlying this tendency of the courts, is an understandable concern about the risk of turning every ERISA case into a “he said, the plan administrator said” case; judges do not want to birth equitable approaches to ERISA cases that turn every dispute into an argument by a participant that he or she was told something different, perhaps by a low level HR contact or perhaps in a written plan communication, than is actually provided under the express terms of a plan itself, with the participant arguing that he or she is therefore entitled to what was said rather than what was written in the plan. One can easily see a broad view and application of equitable remedies in the ERISA context, particularly with claims of equitable estoppel, giving rise to such a circumstance.

I have also always thought, however, that the concerns underpinning this view are overstated. There are, in fact, many instances in which a participant has a serious, well-documented claim of being told in writing one thing, under authorized or required plan communications, and then being given something else under the plan. There is no reason why, when there is a sufficient evidentiary basis to support the claim that a participant was misled about plan benefits, that the participant should not be allowed to proceed with an equitable remedies claim in that context, and, if the participant can prove it, to then be awarded the benefits he was led to believe existed. In that scenario, this type of case simply becomes like every other claim for equitable remedies, in every other context of the law that I can think of: if you say the defendant misled you and you should recover more as a result, then prove it on the evidence. It doesn’t require doctrinal bars or judicial reluctance to recognize equitable claims to avoid excessive litigation in ERISA cases over these types of circumstances; all that is required is testing the evidence just as would occur in any other type of case.

In fact, any concern that openly adopting and enforcing equitable claims in the context of ERISA will give rise to endless numbers of meritless claims is unwarranted. Preventing this “parade of horribles” requires nothing more than a strict interpretation and forceful application of Iqbal and Twombley – if the plaintiff cannot show the elements of an estoppel claim, for instance, based on significant factual support in pleading the claim, then the plaintiff’s claim can and should be tossed out on a motion to dismiss. Wasn’t this the original point of those two decisions, and the extent to which they raised pleading requirements? To bar the courthouse door to claims where the plaintiff cannot actually plead a factual basis for all of the elements of a claim? Courts can successfully bar the courthouse door to unfounded equitable relief claims under ERISA simply by strictly enforcing the pleading requirements of Iqbal and Twombley, and thereby dismissing estoppel and other equitable relief claims that do not have a substantial factual basis.

Nonetheless, there has been ample skepticism in the case law over the past few years towards equitable relief claims brought under ERISA. A couple of weeks ago, however, in Osberg v. Foot Locker, the Southern District of New York gave broad equitable relief to participants based on a reformation theory. In a well-reasoned 83 page opinion, the Court explained that there was more than sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the participants were actively misled about the extent of their retirement benefits. As one excellent summary explained:

U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found that the plan’s summary plan description (SPD) as well as other communications to participants failed to inform them that their benefits would be in a period of “wear-away” during which new accruals would not increase the benefit to which a participant was already entitled. . . . “Here, there is no doubt that Foot Locker committed equitable fraud,” Forrest wrote. “It sought and obtained cost savings by altering the Participants’ Plan, but not disclosing the full extent or impact of those changes.”

The Court ordered that “the plan must be reformed to actually provide the benefit that the misrepresentations caused participants to reasonably expect.”

Importantly, the Court’s opinion was based on substantial and extensive evidence proffered to show misleading statements about the benefits, the effect of those statements on participants, and the manner in which they differed from the actual plan terms. Enforcing equitable remedies under ERISA by focusing on whether the evidence supports the charge, as Osberg shows, is all that is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff when participants come to court challenging plan decisions based on equitable remedies.

So is Osberg a tipping point that may lead the way to a less grudging view by the courts of equitable relief claims under ERISA where allegedly misleading plan communications are at issue? Time will tell, but it has all the indicia that past tipping points in other areas of ERISA litigation, such as excessive fee disputes, have had: a well-reasoned decision by a well-respected court, well-founded in the evidence. If the Second Circuit eventually affirms it, I think we can all expect that, yes, in fact, a tipping point on these types of claims has in fact been reached.