The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Gimeno v. NichMD, Inc. analyzed whether Section 1132(a)(3) of ERISA provides authorization for a beneficiary of a plan governed by ERISA to sue for ‘”appropriate equitable relief’” due to violations of the plan or relevant statute. Thus, the question presented to the court is whether “Section 1132(a)(3) create[s] a cause of action for an ERISA beneficiary to recover monetary benefits lost due to a fiduciary’s breach of fiduciary duty in the plan enrollment process[.]” The Court answers this question in the affirmative, stating that a court “may order typical forms of equitable relief under Section 1132(a)(3).”
This decision reverses that of the district court, which had held that “such a claim would be futile.” The basis for this reversal is the common practice of awarding “equitable surcharge” in cases where a fiduciary’s breach of duty caused a beneficiary to sustain losses. The facts of the case center around the plan holder, Justin Polga, and his spouse, Raniero Gimeno (“Plaintiff”). Polga was an M.D. and an employee of NCHMD, Inc., a subsidiary of NCH Healthcare System Inc. (“Defendants”). When initially hired by the Defendants, the HR department assisted Polga in filling out the relevant paperwork. Gimeno was listed as the primary beneficiary under the relevant plan (“Plan”) and NCH Healthcare the administrator. Polga decided to elect to pay for $350,000 in “supplemental life insurance coverage on top of $150,000 in employer-paid coverage.” In order to receive this coverage, it was required that Polga submit “an evidence of insurability form,” however this form was not provided in his enrollment paperwork nor did the HR department attempt to rectify the error. Therefore, Polga was never properly enrolled on the program according to the insurance company. Despite this fact, the Plan “deducted premiums corresponding to $500,000 in life insurance coverage from Polga’s paychecks.” Further, Polga was provided with benefits statements that included the $500,000 in coverage.
When Polga passed away, the Plaintiff filed a claim with the Plan’s insurance company for benefits as the named beneficiary. The claim was partially denied, as the company approved the claim for the amount of benefits excluding the supplemental amount. Subsequent to this denial, the Plaintiff filed suit to recover the supplemental benefits, alleging that “by failing to notify Polga of the need for the form and misleading him about the nature of his coverage, the defendants breached their fiduciary duty to administer the plan fairly and properly, to inform Polga of his rights and benefits, and to ensure that all application forms were correctly completed and submitted.” As a remedy, the Plaintiff also sought that the Defendants be required by order to pay the benefits that would have been received if not for the breach – “the unpaid $350,000.”