In the August 28, 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the Daily Journal published an article written by the McKennon Law Group PC’s Robert J. McKennon. The article addresses a recent case by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Dorman v. Charles Schwab, which overruled the Ninth Circuit precedent Amaro v. Continental Can Co. and enforced an arbitration clause in a pension plan on the basis that Supreme Court precedent had impliedly overruled its opinion in Amaro. Given the expansive reading of arbitration clauses by the Supreme Court and now the Ninth Circuit, it is likely that more ERISA pension claims will be litigated on an individualized basis and will be litigated in arbitration proceedings.
Ruling Could Send Shock Waves Through ERISA Claims Industry
A 9th Circuit ruling will have the effect of limiting claimants’ much-needed access to the federal courts and class actions.
By Robert J. McKennon
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 was the largest statute ever passed by Congress at the time it was enacted. ERISA established pension and employee benefit plan standards for private employers. As the number of retirees and employees covered by ERISA retirement and benefit plans continued to grow, many found that their plan fiduciaries, including former employers and their insurers, were not meeting their obligations with respect to their retirement and other employee benefits. Thus, the last two decades have seen a significant rise in class action litigation involving fiduciaries of 401(k) and pension plans under various legal theories. These class actions typically allege some type of wrongful conduct by plan fiduciaries that resulted in the reduction of plan assets, usually because of excessive fees charged and/or some type of imprudent investment activity.
These actions have been almost exclusively litigated in the federal courts. This is because in the 9th Circuit, plan participants and their beneficiaries were protected from being forced into arbitrating these claims by Amaro v. Continental Can Co., 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984), in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that ERISA claims were not arbitrable. The Amaro court based its decision in large part on the premise that arbitrators “lack the competence of courts to interpret and apply statutes as Congress intended.” Amaro was widely seen as rejecting binding arbitration in the ERISA context.
Since the Amaro decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has pushed back on its past criticism of arbitration clauses. In AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 345 (2010), ideologically split justices ruled 5-to-4 that an arbitration provision in consumer contracts requiring individual arbitration and preventing class actions or class-wide arbitration was enforceable. The Supreme Court noted that Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act in response to widespread judicial hostility to arbitration and that the principal purpose of the FAA is to ensure that private agreements are enforced according to their terms. Id. at 339. In American Exp. Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 570 U.S. 228, 238 n.5 (2013), the Supreme Court ruled that arbitrators are competent to interpret and apply federal statutes and dismissed the interest in ensuring the prosecution of low-value claims in favor of arbitration, permitting the waiver of the class action procedure.
In a momentous decision in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., 2019 DJDAR 7932 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), the 9th Circuit overruled Amaro and enforced an arbitration clause in a pension plan on the basis that Supreme Court precedent in cases such as American Exp. Co. had impliedly overruled its ruling in Amaro.
Michael Dorman was employed at Schwab from February 2009 to October 2015. Dorman joined the Schwab Retirement Savings and Investment Plan, and voluntarily contributed to his retirement account through payroll deductions until he left Schwab. In December 2014, the plan was amended to add an arbitration provision, which states that “[a]ny claim, dispute or breach arising out of or in any way related to the Plan shall be settled by binding arbitration.” The arbitration provision includes a waiver of class or collective action that requires individual arbitrations, even if, absent the waiver, Dorman could have represented the interests of other plan participants.
In 2017, Dorman filed a class action suit in district court alleging that the defendants violated ERISA and breached their fiduciary duties by including Schwab-affiliated investment funds in the plan, despite the funds’ poor performance, to generate fees for Schwab and its affiliates. In response to his complaint, the defendants moved to compel individual arbitration of the asserted claims pursuant to the arbitration provision in the plan. The district court denied Defendants’ motion.
The court in Dorman addressed these Supreme Court rulings and reasoned further that in Comer v. Micor, Inc., 436 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2006), the 9th Circuit acknowledged in dicta that its past “expressed skepticism about the arbitrability of ERISA claims … seem[ed] to have been put to rest by the Supreme Court’s opinions.” The Dorman court further noted that in American Exp. Co., the Supreme Court expressed that arbitrators are competent to interpret and apply federal statutes and that its opinion in Amaro was thus no longer valid.
The 9th Circuit reasoned that while a three-judge panel may generally not overrule a prior decision of the court, if an intervening Supreme Court decision undermines an existing precedent of the 9th Circuit, the three-judge panel may then overrule prior circuit authority. The court found that the holding in American Exp. Co. that federal statutory claims are generally arbitrable and arbitrators can competently interpret and apply federal statutes constitutes intervening Supreme Court authority that is irreconcilable with Amaro. The court thus reversed and remanded the district court’s ruling. Id.
In an accompanying unpublished order, the same panel enforced the arbitration clause in the plan document, finding that Dorman was bound by the plan’s arbitration provision, that the dispute fell within the scope of the arbitration provision, and that the claims challenging the use of Schwab’s proprietary funds were subject to arbitration and had to be arbitrated on an individual rather than a class basis, with recovery limited to the individual plaintiff’s damages.
To be contrasted with Dorman is the 9th Circuit’s ruling in Munro v. University of Southern California, 896 F.3d 1088 (9th Cir. 2018), which recently addressed a situation where an employee sued his employer not on his own behalf, but on behalf of another entity for claims that the employee cannot bring in his individual capacity. In Munro, nine current and former employees of the University of Southern California brought suit against their employer for breach of fiduciary responsibility in the administration of two ERISA plans offered by the employer. The relief sought by the plaintiffs included the following: a determination as to the method of calculating losses, removal of breaching fiduciaries, a full accounting of plan losses, reformation of the plans and an order regarding appropriate future investments.
Since the plaintiffs all signed arbitration agreements as part of their employment contracts, USC filed a motion to compel arbitration. The district court denied USC’s motion and ruled that the arbitration agreements, which the employees entered into in their individual capacities, do not bind the plans because the plans did not themselves consent to arbitration of the claims. The 9th Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, finding that the claims for breach of fiduciary duty fell outside the scope of the arbitration agreements. In reaching its decision, the court turned to the language of the arbitration agreements, which state that the parties agreed to arbitrate “all claims … that Employee may have against the University or any of its related entities … and all claims that the University may have against Employee.” The court noted that this language does not extend to claims that other entities have against the university.
The Munro court concluded that the ERISA claims for breach of fiduciary duty were not claims that the “Employee may have against the University or any of its related entities.” Rather, the employees brought the claims on behalf of the plans, and, since the plans never consented to arbitration of the claims, the arbitration provision did not apply in this instance. Specifically, the court noted that the ERISA plaintiffs did not seek relief for themselves, but rather sought recovery for injury done to the plans.
Unlike Munro, in Dorman, the arbitration provision was contained in the plan document itself and thus the plan is deemed to consent by virtue of the arbitration provision. Considering the expansive potential reading of the arbitration provision in Dorman and location in the plan document, a claim on behalf of the plan for breach of fiduciary duties under ERISA could reasonably be considered as falling under the purview of the clause.
Dorman has the potential to send shockwaves through ERISA claims industry and will have the effect of limiting claimants’ much-needed access to the federal courts and class actions. Dorman and the above-cited Supreme Court cases appear to stand for the proposition that many types of ERISA claims will be subject to arbitration if the plan documents are drafted properly. Expect that following the Dorman decision, arbitration and class action waiver clauses will become more prevalent in ERISA plans. Given the expansive reading of arbitration clauses by the Supreme Court and now the 9th Circuit, it is likely that more ERISA claims will be litigated on an individualized basis and will be litigated in arbitration proceedings. It remains to be seen whether employers and plans will benefit by this trend.
Robert J. McKennon is a shareholder of McKennon Law Group PC in its Newport Beach office. His practice specializes in representing policyholders in life, health and disability insurance, insurance bad faith, ERISA and unfair business practices litigation. He can be reached at (949) 387-9595 or [email protected] His firm’s California Insurance Litigation Blog can be found at www.californiainsurancelitigation.com.