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An Employment Lawyer’s ERISA Frustrations

Posted by David P. Martin | Apr 21, 2020 | 0 Comments

Employment lawyers frequently encounter frustrating issues with ERISA. Our Civil Procedure classes taught us to combine all claims that we have arising out of a transaction and related transactions into one lawsuit. So, you should be able to bring a lawsuit with ERISA, FLSA, ADA, and other Title VII claims in one lawsuit, right? Perhaps you have a deadline that is running such that suit must be filed. Should you include all the claims? Well, technically, you can make them all, but should you?

The various and conflicting procedures and deadlines of the different claims can force a premature filing or cause you to miss a critical deadline. What to do?

Things to Remember

  • In order to bring an ERISA claim, the claims process in the plan document[1] must first be exhausted.
  • The plan may also affect the time limit to file suit.[2]
  • ERISA plan documents can require two appeals which means the matter can be drug out out well beyond the limitations of other employment-related claims.
  • While there are a few exceptions, generally, ERISA does not provide a statute of limitation for every ERISA claim.

Knowing the applicable time limit requires deciphering the details of the plan document, understanding how courts have applied certain terms, and knowing what to do when gaps exist. This process is only frustrated when the plan document is not available or is refused.

In England v. Adm'rs of the Tulane Educ. Fund, CIVIL ACTION NO: 16-3184 SECTION: “J” (2), at *18 (E.D. La. Nov. 3, 2016), the plaintiff filed suit under FLSA and alleged that he was also owed health insurance benefits and participation in the retirement contributions plan. The latter were ERISA claims. The defendant sought dismissal of the ERISA claims contending that they were premature because the plaintiff had not exhausted the “administrative procedures” required by the governing ERISA plans. The plaintiff responded noting that it was “unfathomable” that he be required to follow the administrative procedures because he “was never afforded the opportunity to even apply for benefits.” The court did not agree and dismissed the ERISA claims.

In another case, the plaintiff claimed that she should be allowed to proceed with all of her claims in one lawsuit because it was futile to exhaust any administrative review as she was denied “meaningful access” to the claim process. Representations made during the course of employment led her to believe that she was not eligible for benefits. McGowin v. Manpower Intern., Inc., 363 F.3d 556, 559 (5th Cir. 2004). The courts refused to excuse the failure to exhaust all claims. “A failure to show hostility or bias on the part of the administrative review committee is fatal to a claim of futility.” Id. Ouch!

Resist the temptation to join all claims in one lawsuit!

If it is necessary to file an employment law claim to meet its time limits, then by all means file it. But don't include your ERISA claims prematurely. And you must be careful not to release the ERISA claims if the other employment law claims are settled.

Whether you or your client needs advice before applying for short-term disability, long-term disability, retirement, pension, or life insurance benefits or need help with a problem afterward, contact an experienced insurance lawyer or ERISA attorney at The Martin Law Group at 800-284-9309.

[1] “though not required by the text of ERISA, exhaustion is a court-imposed requirement based on the interpretation of the statute and congressional intent. See Watts, 316 F.3d at 1207; Mason v. Cont'l Group, Inc., 763 F.2d 1219, 1227 (11th Cir. 1985). ” Tindell v. Tree of Life, Inc., 672 F. Supp. 2d 1300, 1306 (M.D. Fla. 2009)

[2] ERISA does not, however, specify a statute of limitations for filing suit under § 502(a)(1)(B). Filling that gap, the plan at issue here requires participants to bring suit within three years after “proof of loss” is due. Because proof of loss is due before a plan's administrative process can be completed, the administrative exhaustion requirement will, in practice, shorten the contractual limitations period. The question presented is whether the contractual limitations provision is enforceable. We hold that it is. Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 571 U.S. 99, 102 (2013).

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David P. Martin

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