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Articles Tagged with equitable relief

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 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.”

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