The Tenth Circuit’s recent split decision in M. v. Premera Blue Cross, No. 18-4098 (July 24, 2020), poses a significant threat to the deferential standard of review typically applied to benefit plan claim determinations, and imposes a new burden on plan administrators.

More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court held in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989), that benefit denials are “reviewed under a de novo standard unless the benefit plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan.” Applying the Firestone doctrine, lower courts have consistently applied the substantially more deferential “arbitrary and capricious” or “abuse of discretion” standard of review to benefit denials when the plan at issue granted the plan administrator (or relevant fiduciary) discretionary authority consistent with the Firestone case.

The Tenth Circuit, in Premera, changes that standard.


Continue Reading Tenth Circuit Decision Puts New Emphasis on Including Discretionary Authority Language in Summary Plan Descriptions

When an employee separates from employment with a severance payment, the employee will frequently agree to a broad release of claims against the employer. Special concerns arise when applying a general release to potential claims that arise under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Although participants cannot be forced to forfeit their vested pension benefits or the assets in their individual retirement plan accounts, there have been a spate of class action lawsuits in recent years alleging that retirement plan fiduciaries breached their duties under ERISA § 502(a)(2). When faced with a prior release agreement, ERISA plaintiffs often argue that participants cannot individually waive fiduciary breach claims because they are bringing them on behalf of the plan. The Seventh Circuit rejected that argument in Howell v. Motorola, Inc., 633 F.3d 552 (7th Cir. 2011), dismissing the plaintiff’s fiduciary breach claim in a stock drop action because he had knowingly and voluntarily executed a general release. Other courts, however, have held that individual releases do not bar ERISA fiduciary breach claims brought on behalf of the plan. See, e.g., In re Schering Plough Corp. ERISA Litig., 589 F.3d 585, 594 (3d Cir. 2009). While neither the D.C. Circuit nor the district court had to directly address this issue—the argument was not properly raised by the plaintiff—they both concluded in a victory for plan sponsors that the plaintiff’s prior release agreement barred her fiduciary duty claims under ERISA § 502(a)(2).

Continue Reading D.C. Circuit Holds That a Participant Who Signed a Release Could Not Assert ERISA Fiduciary Breach Claims on Behalf of Her Retirement Plan

Background:  On August 20, 2019, a Ninth Circuit panel in Dorman v. Schwab, No. 18-15281, reversed the district court’s denial of Schwab’s motion

to compel arbitration and held that Schwab could force the plaintiff to individually arbitrate his fiduciary duty claims challenging the administration of Schwab’s 401(k) plan.  In 2017, plaintiff Michael Dorman filed a putative class action in federal court alleging that Schwab had breached its fiduciary duties under ERISA by adding allegedly poorly performing in-house investment funds to its 401(k) plan investment lineup.  In 2015 – two years before the lawsuit was filed – Schwab had amended its 401(k) plan document to include an arbitration clause stating that “[a]ny claim, dispute, or breach arising out of or in any way related to the Plan” had to be resolved by individual, rather than class or collective, arbitration.  Based on this 2015 plan amendment, Schwab filed a motion in the district court to compel individual arbitration.  The district court denied the motion because it concluded that the plan’s arbitration provision was unenforceable with respect to the plaintiff’s fiduciary duty claims.


Continue Reading Mandatory Arbitration: The Next Frontier for ERISA Retirement Plans?