Some Thoughts on Kirkendall v. Halliburton

I have passed along on Twitter (https://twitter.com/SDRosenbergEsq) some of the better reviews that have crossed my desk of the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Kirkendall v. Halliburton, Inc., in which the Court held that a plan participant did not have to exhaust administrative remedies in an ERISA plan where the plan document itself was unclear in imposing such an obligation. Frankly, I wasn’t sure the case itself warranted any more extensive discussion, because I don’t find the Court’s conclusion particularly unusual or controversial in any manner. That said, though, the amount of commentary the case has generated reminds me that, at the end of the day, the Second Circuit is like E.F. Hutton: when they talk, people listen. So to expand on my Twitter thoughts about the case, here are some more expansive thoughts, ones that require more than 140 letters to communicate.

The most important way of viewing the decision, in my thinking, is to remember that exhaustion of administrative remedies in this scenario is not a statutory requirement, and is instead a judge-made doctrine that is based on certain assumptions about ERISA plans and certain premises that are thought to be implicit in the statute. In practice, the imposition of an exhaustion of administrative remedies standard on ERISA claims has generally not been a problem, has worked well, and has been effective in effectuating many of the goals for the statute, such as cost efficiency, limited litigation, and encouraging employers to create benefit plans. That said, however, there is certainly no clear cut basis in the statute for believing that, if a plan sponsor doesn’t clearly communicate the need to appeal within the plan, a plan participant should be required to do so or be shown the courthouse door for having failed to do so. This is essentially all that the Second Circuit concluded: if the plan sponsor doesn’t make it clear to the participant in the relevant documents that certain internal administrative appeals are required, along with explaining how to do that, an obligation to do so cannot be imposed on a plan participant.

This is not a new issue, although the decision in Kirkendall may be the most significant authority to date for this proposition. I have litigated this issue in the past, but most often you see it in one-offs like top-hat plans (or virtual one-offs, like SERPs for just a few executives), where a custom document is created for certain employees to address compensation-related issues, and the ERISA procedural component of doing so is not front and center in the authoring attorney’s mind. Usually, the outcome of any dispute over administrative exhaustion in those situations ends up the same as the ruling by the Second Circuit in Kirkendall for all intents and purposes, but getting to that result is harder than just citing a leading decision from a prominent appellate bench; you instead had to rely on a collection of lower court decisions finding exhaustion to not be required for a multiple of different reasons. Certainly, at the end of the day, Kirkendall will make it easier for lawyers for plan participants faced with this scenario to support their arguments that they can prosecute a claim in court without first exhausting internal administrative appeals, but I don’t think it will much change the outcome from what would have occurred without that decision.