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Articles Tagged with ambiguity

Recently, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in an action brought against DuPont and Corteva Inc. (defendants). The court held that the Defendants’ motion to dismiss was premature, and that the case could continue through the litigation process. The case concerns the claim brought by employees of DuPont and Corteva alleging that the companies acted in violation of ERISA’s fiduciary duties by changing their early retirement policy after a corporate merger. The Defendants attempted to dismiss the case by arguing that the workers who initiated the suit were not classified as “employees” and therefore ineligible for early retirement. The court disagreed, rejecting the motion, and stating that it was still too early in the suit to determine whether this was adequate grounds for dismissal, and that such a determination would be more appropriate in the summary judgment phase or left to a jury.

Additionally, the judge stated that the “Plaintiffs have pled sufficient[ly] to allege that the administrative committee did not act reasonably in terminating their rights to early retirement … and that they had a legally enforceable right to benefits under the plan.” The violations at issue concern the Defendants’ actions following corporate restructuring. After a merger between DuPont and Dow Chemical Co., three separate entities were created: Corteva, Dow Inc., and DuPont. The named Plaintiff, Cockerill, stated that he had structured his career relying on DuPont’s early retirement options. Cockerill has worked for the corporation for over 20 years under the Rule of 85 early retirement plan (“Plan”). The Plan provided that early retirement was available if the sum of an employee’s age and the years they had worked at the company totaled to 85. Thus, Cockerill would have been eligible for retirement at the age of 58. The issue arose when DuPont became Corteva, and the retirement plan’s time frame divested as Cockerill was considered terminated from DuPont and a new employee of Corteva. However, no changes to Cockerill’s job were made and he continued to perform in the same role he had for DuPont. After the switch to Corteva, Cockerill was informed that the earliest year in which he could retire had changed from 2027 to 2034 due to the change in retirement plan management.

Representation for the plaintiffs has proposed a subclass of DuPont employees who did not qualify for early retirement due to the merger, though had been fired from the companies for “lack of work.” In response, the Defendants argue that the suit must be dismissed, as the plans at issue only applied to “employees” for the “company,” and members of the subclass did not meet the requirements of the description. In order to be considered an “employee,” the Defendants argue that a worker must have been employed by the original E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. or a subsidiary. The subsidiary at issue in the case, Specialty Products, is argued to not qualify as it was not affiliated with the original DuPont at the time the company diverged.

The First Circuit recently affirmed the position that when a policy or plan is ambiguous, it should be interpreted in favor of the insured. The case that gave rise to the question is Ministeri v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company. The facts of the case concern a denial by the Defendant (“Reliance”) for life insurance benefits due to the widow of a Plan member, Renee Ministeri (“Plaintiff”). Reliance argued that the Plaintiff’s late husband, Anthony (the member of the plan at issue), did not have coverage under the policy because it had lapsed due to his absence from work caused by a severe medical condition. Anthony passed away in 2015, with Reliance claiming that the policy lapsed during the time he was not working.

The dispute revolved around unclear language in the policy regarding the definitions of “actively” working in the role of “corporate vice president.” Further, the facts were unclear about the amount of hours Anthony had worked during the relevant period. The Court held that “under a reasonable construction of the phrase, Ministeri could be regarded as an ‘Active … Corporate Vice President’ as long as he was a non-retired employee holding a job title matching the rank of Corporate Vice President.” Further, the Court’s ruling stated that no dispute existed as to whether Ministeri’s status as a current employee was terminated prior to his formal announcement of leave in 2014. Thus, the Court rejected Reliance’s argument concerning the interpretation of the ambiguous terms in this section of the policy.

Reliance proffered a second argument, opining that $500,000 in supplemental coverage was not available to Renee Ministeri in addition to the $592,000 in basic coverage provided by the policy. Reliance argues that Renee failed to apply for the portability provision of the policy, though it was noted during oral arguments that she had applied for supplemental coverage. Applying for supplemental coverage was the Plaintiff’s avenue to enacting the portability provision, against which Reliance did not argue. Judge Bruce M. Selya stated in his opinion that Reliance delayed their defenses to the Plaintiff’s claims in violation of ERISA; his opinion read, “[Reliance] chose to keep quiet about its discovered basis for denial until litigation ensued … that is precisely the sort of delayed reaction ERISA forbids.”

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