Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Pay Attention to the Clock: The Importance of Procedural Timing Issues in ERISA Litigation

I have been tied up on trial out of state most of January, and am now starting to go back over the more interesting items that landed in my in-box during that time. One of my favorites is this Supreme Court decision in an ERISA case, which essentially holds that a party cannot wait for a district court’s resolution of a request for attorney’s fees before seeking to appeal any part of an earlier ruling on the substance of the ERISA claim. As Sarah Jenkins and Jon Laramore of Faegre Baker Daniels discussed in this piece – the first one I have seen discussing the substance of this opinion – the Court held in Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund of the International Union of Operating Engineers that “an appeal was untimely because an unresolved issue of contractual attorneys' fees did not prevent judgment on the merits from being final for purposes of” the appellate clock.

While the details of the decision will be of immense interest – I am sure – to appellate mavens (oh where have you gone, Appellate Law & Practice blog?), the more interesting aspect to me is the decision’s unspoken and unacknowledged linkage to the Supreme Court’s very recent decision in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance, which held that an ERISA claim could be barred by failing to comply with a contractual filing period established under a plan document. The combination of the two decisions drives home the highly technical nature of prosecuting ERISA claims, and the crucial importance of getting every step right so as to protect all rights of recovery available under the statute. As the two cases make clear, one can waive clear rights to recovery under ERISA by failing to prosecute them exactly as required and on the exact time schedule required by applicable plan terms and governing statutes. While some might view the particular timing requirements addressed in Ray Haluch Gravel and Heimeshoff as picayune, the Court’s strict enforcement of them make clear that parties seeking relief under ERISA had best not treat them that way.
 

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