A federal court in Pennsylvania recently certified a class of Plaintiffs under Defendant Aetna Life Insurance Co.’s disability benefits plan (“Plan”). The Plaintiffs alleged that the Defendants forced beneficiaries who had received payments for personal injury claims to send the payments back to the company in violation of ERISA.
The named Plaintiff, Joanne Wolff, first filed suit against Aetna in 2019 when the company asked for the repayment of over $50,000 in long-term disability benefits stemming from a temporary disability suffered by the Plaintiff after a car wreck. At the time of the request, Wolff told the Defendants that her employer, Bank of America, did not allow reimbursement, and negotiations ended in an agreement that that Wolff would pay $30,000 despite this fact.
This did not end the dispute, however, and Wolff along with an at least 48-member class now allege that Aetna violated ERISA when it required reimbursement payments of long-term personal injury disability payments. Aetna responded that class certification would be inappropriate, as the proposed class did not meet the specifications required for certification under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Mainly, the Defendants argued that some of the members of the proposed class should be disqualified, thus the number of participants in the class did not meet the numerosity requirement. It argued that since some of the members of the class were from different companies, there was not sufficient typicality to fulfill the requirements under the Civil Rules and members under other employers should be disqualified, reducing the class number to 28. Aetna also argued that timing issues barred several more participants under the relevant statutes of limitations.
The Court disagreed, stating that the class size both exceeded the minimum number of members and that the benefit plans of each member were substantially similar, thus making certification appropriate under the Civil Rules. It was decided that the plans at issue contained similar enough language that the fact that the beneficiaries worked for different companies was irrelevant. Judge Matthew W. Brann stated, “Because Wolff meets all three concerns implicated by typicality, the court finds she had satisfied this requirement.” Regarding the argument that certain members were barred under statutes of limitations, the Court stated that this number was so few that it would not impact the ability for the class to be appropriately certified under the Civil Rules.
Therefore, Wolff and the class of members is permitted to move forward in federal court as all requirements have been satisfied. This decision is a victory not only for members of the class, but for participants in disability plans governed by ERISA. ERISA requires that plan administrators fulfill various fiduciary duties to their participants; when these duties are violated it is often done on a large scale and impacts participants across not only the specific company but under similar plans as well. This decision shows the importance of policy language and similarity between plans, creating the standard that when companies breach their duties to participants, an action may be brought under similar policy language rather than under the same employer. This provides the opportunity for recourse under ERISA to a wider range of plan participants, ensuring the fulfillment of benefits and accountability from administrators.