Most lawyers know that an ERISA benefit claim is similar to a breach of contract action. The Supreme Court has said as much in Firestone v. Bruch. As a result, most lawyers also assume that there is plenty of time before it is necessary to file a lawsuit regarding an ERISA claim. However, a recent case illustrates that you may not have as much time as you thought… and in fact, you may be holding a “hot potato.”
In Horton v. Hilton Ret. Plan, CV 17-9015, 2017 WL 5992096 (E.D. La. Dec. 4, 2017), the question was whether a pension benefit lawsuit was filed in a timely manner. Pension benefits are very important as they typically pay for the life of the participant and perhaps even for the life of a spouse as well. The court had before it a motion to dismiss, supported by the governing plan document. The plan established a limitations period of 180 days, and the lawsuit was clearly filed after that. The proper resolution was “clear as crystal.” Case dismissed! Regardless of the equities, whatever adverse pension plan decision was made is now “locked in” for the rest of Mr. Horton's life.
This is why it is crucial to hire experienced ERISA counsel immediately to ensure that you are doing everything by the book from the very beginning. Otherwise, it could come back to burn you later.