United States: A Look Ahead To The Supreme Court's 2015-16 Term

Last Updated: July 13 2015
Article by Charles F. Seemann III and William H. Payne

As the Supreme Court winds down its 2014-15 term, the Benefits Law Advisor looks ahead to the ERISA cases and issues the Supreme Court may confront in its next terms. The Supreme Court's recent ERISA jurisprudence has touched on issues such as remedies (CIGNA Corp. v. Amara and US Airways v. McCutchen), retiree entitlement to healthcare benefits (M&G Polymers v. Tackett), time-based defenses to ERISA claims (Tibble v. Edison Int'l and Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins.), and the now-defunct "presumption of prudence" that lower courts had applied to ERISA plans' decision to offer employer stock as an investment option (Fifth Third Bank v. Dudenhoeffer).

As of this writing, the Court has only granted certiorari in one ERISA case for next year's term, Montanile v. Board of Trustees, No. 14-723, cert. granted Mar. 30, 2015. The Montanile case arose from the familiar situation where an ERISA plan seeks to recover medical benefits paid to an injured participant, after that participant receives a tort recovery for those injuries. Both lower courts granted summary judgment to the plan, with the additional proviso that the plan could impose an equitable lien (under the terms of the plan) on Montanile's settlement proceeds, even if those monies have been dissipated.

In granting Montanile's petition, the Court interprets, once again, the term "equitable relief" in ERISA §502(a)(3) – an issue the Court has repeatedly revisited. In particular, the Montanile case gives the Court a chance to address an open question from its equitable-remedies jurisprudence: is there an "equitable tracing" requirement that obligates ERISA plaintiffs to identify a specific sum of money that may be the subject of an equitable recovery?

The existence of an equitable-tracing requirement has been hotly debated since at least 2003, when the Court's decision in Great West Life & Annuity v. Knudson firmly established that equitable relief under ERISA was limited to those forms of relief traditionally available in the courts of equity. Since Knudson, many ERISA defendants have successfully argued that equitable relief was only available where plaintiff could identify a particular asset or sum of money that could be made subject to a restitutionary recovery, constructive trust or equitable lien. As a result, the Court has struggled (in this author's view) with how to apply traditional "tracing" rules, because the Court's answer could have far-reaching implications both for plans seeking reimbursement, and for participants invoking ERISA §502(a)(3) for redress in fiduciary-breach claims or other violations of ERISA.

It seems that the Court is ready to answer that question in Montanile, judging from the question presented in the Court's writ. Another similar case, Elem v. AirTran Airways, No. 14-1061 (cert. pet. filed Feb. 27, 2015). is pending before the Court on the participant's petition.

Beyond Montanile, the Court has several other writ petitions pending, including three cases where the Court has invited the Solicitor of Labor to weigh in with an amicus brief. These cases include:

  • Smith v. Aegon Cos. Pension Plan – In this case, the lower courts dismissed benefits claims on grounds of improper venue. In doing so, the lower courts held that an exclusive-venue provision in the plan required the participant to bring his benefits suit in the specified venue. The Department of Labor (DOL) had submitted an amicus brief to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that venue-selection provisions ran afoul of ERISA's goal of providing participants with ready access to the courts. The Sixth Circuit, however, rejected DOL's position and enforced the plan's venue provision. A Supreme Court decision on this issue would likely be significant, because many plan sponsors are using the plan document to "hard wire" certain defenses to benefits claims – for example, the Court's recent Heimeshoff decision approved a limitations period established by the plan.
  • Gobeille v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. – This case presents a pre-emption question – specifically, whether ERISA pre-empts a Vermont law requiring healthcare payors (including ERISA plans) to submit certain claims data to the state. A split panel of the Second Circuit held the Vermont law was pre-empted because it imposed additional reporting requirements on those already imposed by ERISA. At the Court's invitation, DOL filed an amicus brief opining that ERISA does not pre-empt the Vermont statute because it applies to non-ERISA entities, as well, and does not impose significant reporting burdens. The DOL brief added, however, that the Court's review was not currently warranted, and suggested that "further percolation" of the issue in the appellate courts would be beneficial. Given that the Court's last decision on ERISA pre-emption was over 10 years ago, the Court may nevertheless be signaling its readiness to take the case, and to issue further guidance on ERISA's pre-emptive reach.
  • RJR Pension Inv. Comm. v. Tatum – The Tatum case arose from a dispute over plan fiduciaries' decision to divert the plan of company stock, at a time when the stock was distressed. After the company stock recovered dramatically, participants asserted ERISA claims that plan fiduciaries had acted imprudently in selling the stock at a time when the price was down significantly. The Fourth Circuit held, among other things, that (1) the burden of proving loss causation shifted to plan fiduciaries, upon a showing that the fiduciaries had breached their duty of prudent investment; and (2) plan fiduciaries must show a hypothetical prudent fiduciary "would have" (as opposed to "could have") made the same investment decision, where there was no evidence that the plan's fiduciaries had undertaken robust deliberations before divesting the plan's holdings in company stock. The Court invited the DOL to brief both issues. If the Court takes the case, its decision could be significant. On the former issue, a decision from the Court would resolve diverging lower-court decisions on whether the plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of proof (including loss causation), or whether the burden-shifting approach of trust law – requiring a trustee, upon a showing of a breach of duty, to demonstrate that the breach did not cause the loss – is more appropriate for ERISA cases. On the latter issue, a decision from the Court could provide much-needed guidance on the proper scope of judicial review of fiduciary decision-making.

Although the Court has taken no action yet on the petition, it may be worth watching to see whether the Court takes up the case of UnitedHealthcare of Arizona, Inc. v. Spinedex Physical Therapy USA, Inc., No. 14-1286 (cert. pet. filed April 24, 2015). There, the Ninth Circuit held that a claims administrator is a proper party defendant in a medical benefits claim, even though it otherwise had no obligation as the benefits payer. Because ERISA §502(a)(1)(B) only authorizes suit for "benefits due ... under the terms of his plan," the Ninth Circuit's reading of the statute – which purports to make claims administrators liable for benefits in a manner not contemplated by "the terms of the plan" – clearly seems overbroad. If left unaddressed, the Spinedex decision could ultimately prove counter-productive, in that it will inevitably raise costs for service providers, which in turn, will be passed along to the plans, and ultimately to the participants in the form of higher premiums, larger deductibles, or less-generous coverage.

The Supreme Court has demonstrated some enthusiasm for ERISA in recent years. The Montanile case represents a significant beginning to the Court's ERISA work for the next term. Given the cases and issues before it, however, the odds are that the Court will consider more ERISA cases in the next twelve months. The Benefits Law Advisor will continue to monitor the Court's docket, and report on significant developments.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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