Multi-Million Dollar Disgorgement Award Struck Down in Rochow - But the Disgorgement Remedy May Still Be AliveMarch 31, 2015 Robert McKennon
In December 2013, we published an article highlighting the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ bold decision to award the plaintiff disability benefits plus $2.8 million in disgorged earnings, as a potential “game-changer” in Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) litigation—that is, if it survived review. Rochow v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 737 F.3d 415 (6th Cir. 2013) (“Rochow I”). Alas, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision in February 2014 and stayed the case. Rochow v. Life Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 3158 (6th Cir. Feb. 19, 2014) (“Rochow II”). Finally, in March 2015, the Court of Appeals issued an en banc decision vacating the disgorgement award and remanding the case for a review of prejudgment interest. Rochow v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 3532 (6th Cir. 2015) (“Rochow III”). The Court held that because the plaintiff was adequately compensated by an award of the insurance benefits, attorneys’ fees and possible prejudgment interest, that in this case, disgorgement was not necessary to make the plaintiff whole. Although this decision is disheartening to claimant’s attorneys eager to test the limits of ERISA remedies, a careful reading of Rochow III reveals that the Sixth Circuit does not entirely foreclose disgorgement as an appropriate remedy under ERISA. Moreover, the concurring and dissenting opinions provide additional guidance for future ERISA claimants who suffer injuries and seek equitable remedies beyond their policy benefits.
The January 8, 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal featured Robert McKennon and Scott Calvert’s article entitled: “Expanding Equitable Remedies in ERISA Cases.” In it, Mr. McKennon and Mr. Calvert discuss a new case, Gabriel v. Alaska Electrical Pension Fund, 2014 DJDAR 16590 (9th Cir. 2014) and also discuss equitable remedies generally in ERISA cases and, in particular, how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has joined other circuits in allowing certain equitable remedies, most especially the surcharge remedy. Mr. McKennon and Mr. Calvert also explain how insurance claimants should go about proving equitable remedies. The article is posted below with the permission of the Daily Journal.
Ninth Circuit Expands the Availability of Equitable Remedies in ERISA Cases, Approving Surcharge as a Viable RemedyDecember 24, 2014 Scott Calvert
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Russell, 473 U.S. 134 (1985), the courts have grappled with the issue of the extent to which equitable remedies are available under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). One of the most interesting and beneficial for plan participants is the issue of the equitable remedy of surcharge under ERISA. Recently, the Ninth Circuit withdrew an earlier decision regarding the availability of the equitable remedy of surcharge in ERISA, and issued a new ruling consistent with the holdings of other Circuit courts. The new ruling, Gabriel v. Alaska Electrical Pension Fund, 2014 DJDAR 16590 (9th Cir. 2014), is much more favorable to ERISA claimants and makes clear that surcharge, a form of equitable relief, is available to ERISA claimants under 29 U.S.C. section 1132(a)(3). Further, the Court also set forth the requirements that a claimant must meet to qualify for other forms of equitable relief, including equitable estoppel and reformation.
The specific facts of the Gabriel matter are unimportant, and ultimately the Ninth Circuit ruled that the district court was correct in holding that the plaintiff was not entitled to the payment of the pension funds that he sought because his rights to those funds never vested. The Ninth Circuit also remanded one aspect of the case to the District Court, but virtually instructed the lower court to deny that claim as well. However, the ruling is important because, by making the equitable remedy of surcharge available to ERISA claimants, the Ninth Circuit aligned itself with the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits in expanding the rights of ERISA claimants.
Echague v. Met Life: Equitable Surcharge is an Available Remedy Against Unresponsive Plan Administrators Under ERISAJune 26, 2014 Robert McKennon
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) seeks to protect participants in employer-sponsored plans, but lack of adequate communication and transparency is an often an unfortunate byproduct of the insurance industry. The California district court shed light on this issue in Echague v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68642 (N.D. Cal. May 19, 2014) by holding an insurer breaches its fiduciary duty when providing insufficient responses and the insured may be entitled to equitable surcharge. Echague is highly beneficial to insureds and beneficiaries, as it warns plan fiduciaries (such as insurers and plan administrators/employers) to think twice before ignoring requests for information, giving incorrect information, or neglecting to provide updates regarding the policies they administer, as their inactions or providing of incorrect information about the plan may open them up to equitable remedies such as equitable surcharge which would allow plan participants to recover the full value of the plan benefits in dispute.
While this blog often discusses disability, life and health insurance/employee benefit decisions under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA “), we rarely discuss federal circuit court of appeal decisions from outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which governs California). We are making an exception here, as a recent case from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals really caught our attention. The case is Rochow v. Life Insurance Company of North America, __ F.3d ___ (6th Cir. December 6, 2013). It is a “game-changer” in the world of ERISA disability, life and health insurance/employee benefit litigation, and could fundamentally change the way in which ERISA remedies are discussed and how these cases are litigated. To say this is a “plaintiff friendly” case is probably to understate it.
Keith Parker, an excellent mediator who specializes in mediating ERISA matters, authored the following article on “Recovery of Overpayments Under ERISA” We at the McKennon Law Group PC are happy to recommend this outstanding article for your reading. We include the entire article below with permission from Mr. Parker.
Section 1132(a)(3)(B) of ERISA authorizes participants, beneficiaries and/or fiduciaries to bring civil actions seeking “appropriate equitable relief” to enforce the provisions of an ERISA plan. Just what constitutes “appropriate equitable relief” has challenged courts and practitioners, in large part because the Supreme Court has interpreted that language to incorporate the “archaic” (Justice Ginsburg’s word) and “obsolete” (Justice Steven’s word) distinction between relief available in equity and that available in law at the time of the so-called divided bench. While most members of the bar (academics and certain members of the Supreme Court excepted) have no experience with, or interest in, the distinction in this day of the unified bench, the distinction is part of the Federal common law of ERISA and, so, must be considered when dealing with claims for equitable relief under ERISA.
The Wednesday July 11, 2012 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal featured Robert McKennon’s and Scott Calvert’s article entitled: “Equitable Relief in the Ninth Circuit Just Got Better for Consumers.” In it, Mr. McKennon and Mr. Calvert discuss two important Ninth Circuit rulings allowing certain equitable relief to ERISA plan participants that have definite pro-consumer holdings. The article is posted below with the permission of the Daily Journal.