“‘No firm compares to’ Mayer Brown when it comes to ERISA litigation. The team is ‘very responsive and provides practical and proactive advice’ . . . .” Legal 500 USA 2018
To litigate cases about employee benefits requires substantive know-how and the ability to translate arcane concepts into terms that lay judges can understand. Mayer Brown has a thriving ERISA Litigation practice that combines deep experience, skilled advocacy and cutting-edge insights.
Our ERISA litigators are neither benefits lawyers nor litigation generalists—they are full-time litigators who focus on understanding how benefits disputes arise and are adjudicated. As such, our lawyers have been retained to offer counsel on all of the issues that typically arise in litigation or administrative proceedings involving employee benefit plans. We are regularly engaged by plan sponsors and plan administrators, as well as individual and corporate fiduciaries, trustees, custodians, financial institutions and plan service providers, in matters ranging from individual benefit disputes to complex class actions. And we counsel those same clients about how to reduce their risk of being sued in the first place. We have also been preapproved by fiduciary liability carriers to provide defense for their insureds.
The breadth of our experience and our client successes have led to accolades for the group and its lawyers from leading publications such as Law360, Legal 500 USA, Chambers USA, The National Law Journal and Best Lawyers. In 2019, we were honored by Law360 as one of only five firms to be awarded “Benefits Practice Group of the Year.” Additionally, two of our partners were recently named Employment Law Trailblazers by The National Law Journal, which recognizes lawyers who “continue to make their mark in various aspects of legal work in the areas of employment law.” Our lawyers were also recognized as a 2019 “Lawyer of the Year” by Best Lawyers in the category of ERISA Litigation and a 2019 Law360 MVP in the category of benefits litigation.
When working with Mayer Brown, clients benefit not just from the skills and experience of our ERISA litigators but also from those of our other top-notch professionals. ERISA matters often intersect with investigations by US federal agencies (such as the Department of Labor, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service) and other benefits and tax issues, so we regularly coordinate with our ERISA Fiduciary counseling group, which contributes a deep understanding of ERISA’s regulatory environment, and our firm’s esteemed Securities Litigation & Enforcement and Tax Controversy practices. We also understand that the law is not static and is shaped by litigation strategy. We therefore turn to our elite Supreme Court & Appellate litigation practice when it will benefit our clients. Our Supreme Court & Appellate practice is consistently recognized as one of the best in the United States, having been named to National Law Journal’s “Appellate Hot List” for the 12th consecutive year and recognized by Law360 as “Practice Group of the Year” for the fourth year in a row.
Although our practice covers the full domain of ERISA litigation, here is a sampling of our experience:
Recent trends have prompted fiduciaries to be sued, often in class actions, under complaints challenging plan investment decisions; plan fee arrangements, including recordkeeping costs and revenue sharing among plan providers; employer stock options; benefits claims denials; and out-of-network healthcare provider billing practices. We have substantial experience in each of these areas. Lawyers in our ERISA Litigation practice are experienced in managing relationships with fiduciary liability carriers and in addressing concerns that arise in such cases. Our favorable results speak for themselves.
Our ERISA Litigation lawyers are practiced in working with the Department of Labor to resolve investigations, audits and enforcement actions, which we have defended on behalf of plans and plan sponsors, advisers and other fiduciaries and service providers. For example, we have represented investment fund advisers in connection with Department of Labor conflict-of-interest challenges, government contractors in Department of Labor investigations over plan fees charged to participants and financial institutions in connection with, among other things, the Department of Labor’s investigation into mutual fund market timing practices, the Department of Labor’s enforcement initiative against cross-trading and in preparing comments to the Department of Labor on its class exemption for passive cross-trading.
The tides of litigation often follow the regulatory agenda of the Department of Labor. Our ERISA Litigation lawyers counsel clients on how to mitigate risks stemming from Department of Labor rulemaking proceedings and have challenged regulatory overreaches in court using the tools of the Administrative Procedure Act. Together with members of our ERISA Fiduciary counseling group, we have also sought formal exemptions and opinion letters from the Department of Labor.
Given this wide range of experience, we are exceptionally well qualified to help clients deal with the controversies that ERISA still generates more than 40 years after it was adopted.
Mayer Brown has represented companies, plan sponsors, investment managers, other fiduciaries, and service providers in a range of ERISA and benefit litigation matters, at trial and on appeal, in courts across the country. Mayer Brown is particularly experienced in handling complex, class action ERISA litigations where millions in potential liability are at stake. Mayer Brown routinely achieves very favorable results for our clients.
For example, the firm has secured important victories in cases involving the rights of retirees to welfare benefits, in both union and non-union contexts. These include a precedent-setting victory before an en banc panel of the Sixth Circuit on behalf of General Motors, and a recent summary judgment victory in an ERISA class action litigation in which a class of retirees sought $100 million in benefit payments. Similarly, Mayer Brown has been involved in some of the more significant ERISA "stock drop" litigations, winning a defense judgment after a bench trial in the Columbia-HCA stock drop case, winning dismissal of a stock drop complaint with prejudice, serving as counsel to the independent fiduciary evaluating the settlement in the Worldcom and Williams Companies ERISA litigations, and representing a defendant in the Fannie Mae ERISA litigation. Mayer Brown has also defended a number of plan sponsors and fiduciaries against claims of breach of fiduciary duty, and currently represents one of the largest financial services companies in the world in such a case. In addition to being well-versed in ERISA regulations and financial accounting issues involved in pension miscalculation claims, Mayer Brown's ERISA litigators also have experience with claims of professional malpractice, and multiemployer withdrawal liability.
The following matters handled by our ERISA lawyers demonstrate our depth of experience, the variety of our clients, the complexity and range of issues we litigate, our geographic scope of experience and our record of success. These are all important factors in selecting counsel for benefits litigation and for advice on litigation sensitive matters. They include cases dealing with ERISA, fiduciary duty, health benefits, plan termination, severance pay and ESOPs.
- Secured a victory before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of our client, a global insurance company, in high-profile ERISA litigation against the State of Vermont. On behalf of our client, we challenged a state regulation requiring the disclosure of employees' private and confidential medical claims history from health insurers within the state. Self-funded health plans such as the one our client provides to its employees are included in the definition of "health insurers" under the regulation enforcing the statute. We successfully maintained that such a state law runs afoul of ERISA's preemptive scope.
- Defended an aerospace defense contractor, including its investment management corporation, in an ERISA putative class action in connection with defined contribution plans’ investment options and fees, in the Southern District of Illinois. This long-running case involved a challenge to one of the nation’s largest 401(k) plans. In 2006, a group of plaintiffs filed suit against our client and a subsidiary, alleging that their 401(k) accounts were subject to unreasonable fees and imprudent investment fund offerings. Plaintiffs alleged class-wide damages exceeding $ 1billion. In a succession of proceedings that included two trips to the court of appeals and a cert petition, we succeeded in narrowing the claims and the terms of class certification. On the eve of trial, the case settled on favorable terms for our clients.
- We defended our client, a large food manufacturing company, in a case that addressed the application of the anti-cutback rule to a multi-employer pension fund that modified the rules governing post-retirement employment. Ruling unanimously in favor of our client, the Supreme Court held that the anti-cutback rule precludes such plans from being amended to expand the definition of prohibited post-retirement employment with respect to benefits accrued prior to such amendment.
- A 650 person class of former employees sued our client, one of the largest paper manufacturers in the US, under the Labor Management Relations Act and ERISA seeking $100 million in retiree medical payments. We obtained summary judgment for our client on all of the LMRA claims and summary judgment that our client terminated their ERISA plans when it consolidated those plans. On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed in all respects.
- The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment in favor of Mayer Brown’s client, a major insurance company. The Second Circuit held that our client’s cash balance pension plan does not violate the age discrimination prohibition of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The court also held that the plaintiffs’ claims that they received insufficient notice of our client’s adoption of the cash balance plan were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
- Secured a victory in a class action regarding an executive retirement plan in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which a group of 400 executives of an automobile company alleged numerous state law claims alleging that the bankrupt employer raided the plan assets. We won after proving that the claims were preempted by ERISA, and that plaintiffs could not assert a cognizable claim under ERISA.
- Secured a complete victory for our client, a governmental pension plan with over $8 billion in assets, in a class action challenging its calculation of annuity payments made to 1,700 early retirees over a 17-year period. If the relief sought had been granted, our client could have been required to pay additional benefits with a present value of as much as $35 million. We obtained partial summary judgment in the trial court, and then convinced the Illinois Supreme Court to reverse an adverse decision by the Illinois Appellate Court handed down before the firm’s involvement in the case.
- Represented an employee benefit plan in securities litigation against a major bank in connection with a failed merger in order to obtain class member recognition of the plan participants recognized in the securities settlement. The case settled after the district court’s denial of the plan participants’ objection to the settlement was remanded to the district court by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
- Defended a client manufacturer in a case where plaintiffs sought compensation for lost employee benefits that they claimed they were entitled to under a severance plan; we avoided trial and saved our client from paying out massive damages, costs and fees by undergoing extensive mediation under the auspices of a retired federal judge.
- Defended a major life insurance company in a class action filed by insurance agents challenging the company's sales performance requirements for agents to qualify for benefits; the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court judgment in favor of our client and adopted our argument on the statute of limitations in such cases.
- Defended a life insurance company in a major class action case involving the issue of age discrimination in cash balance pension plans; we obtained a dismissal to the age discrimination claims and received favorable rulings on benefit plan notices and issues dating back to 1988 in a ruling that will impact any employer hoping to provide employees with cash balance pension plans without facing claims that they are age discriminatory.
- Represented a defendant bank as trustee and investment manager in a massive ERISA class action filed by employees of an automotive manufacturer who suffered retirement savings plan losses as the manufacturer's stock declined; we convinced the court to dismiss the complaint given that our client's discretionary responsibilities for stock investments were limited to liquidity needs and that it had no ERISA liability for decisions concerning the investment merits.
- Pilots sought to enjoin a final distribution of approximately $186 million in convertible notes. Plaintiffs alleged claims under ERISA for breach of fiduciary duty and failure to pay benefits owed. Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction was denied. The court found that plaintiffs failed to establish the existence of an ERISA plan and that plaintiffs' claims were preempted by the Railway Labor Act. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the suit.
- Represented the former chairman of an international biotechnology manufacturer in an ERISA class action brought by participants in the company's 401(k) plan in conjunction with a drop in the company's stock price due to claims that the company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; the court held that the plaintiffs failed to prove their case.
- Defeated a petition for writ of mandamus in an ERISA lawsuit in which retirees sought to prevent the transfer of their lawsuit challenging the reduction and termination of their retiree medical benefits to the Northern District of Illinois.
Fiduciary Duty Cases
- The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether a fiduciary-breach claim challenging the selection of an investment option in a 401(k) plan may be brought after the 6-year limitations period on the original decision has expired, on the theory that the fiduciary breached a duty to monitor the decision previously made. We filed an amicus brief on behalf of the ESOP Association arguing that, although a claim for breach of the duty to monitor would not be time-barred in those circumstances, it requires different proof than would a claim that a fiduciary breached a duty in the initial selection of the fund. The case has been argued and is awaiting resolution by the Supreme Court.
- Regularly defend senior management, board members, institutional trustees, fiduciaries and administrators of 401(k) plans in lawsuits resulting from adverse business developments which affect the value of company stock and other assets in the plan.
- Regularly defend plan sponsors and fiduciaries in ESOP lawsuits after company stock declines and bankruptcies.
- Defended a class action which alleged breach of fiduciary duty in the role of investment manager. The plaintiff class was composed of employees of a global oil company participating in a 401k plan. As a result of the Enron collapse, one of the investments in one of the funds within the 401k plan became worthless. Plaintiffs claimed damages in excess of $20 million. The case settled on the first day of trial.
- Obtained summary judgment for our client’s employees’ retirement plans on claims for benefits, breach of fiduciary duty, and statutory penalties for alleged failure to provide plan documents.
- Defended an international oil company in a class action claiming breach of fiduciary duty in implementing a "paperless" telephone system for administering a 33,000-participant 401(k) plan; this case was resolved with a nominal settlement after we defeated class certification in federal court in Texas.
- Defended a class action challenging the exclusion of certain pay from pension calculations for 18,000 retirees; the plan administrator's position was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in a decision reversing an adverse district court ruling which could have cost $125 million in claimed benefits.
- Defended a large utility company in a Michigan class action challenging the company’s exclusion of independent contractors and leased employees from participation in various benefit programs.
- Defended a large pension plan against an insurance company responsible for the investment of pension plan assets; we negotiated a favorable settlement of the claims, including transfer of plan assets to another insurance company.
- Defended a corporate fiduciary in a class action claiming a breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the timing of lump sum distributions under a profit-sharing plan.
- Defended the retirement plan of a health services provider in a class action challenging the plan design and administration, which excluded the value of a cost-of-living adjustment from lump sum calculations of retirement benefits; negotiated a favorable settlement reducing a $60 million exposure to $15 million.
- Defended an insurance company plan in federal court in New Jersey in a case concerning an adjustment in plan asset values resulting in a decrease in participant benefits.
- Negotiated a $100 million transfer of excess funds for a Texas utility client with an overfunded life insurance program frozen by an insurance company after threatening to file suit.
- Represented banking institutions against breach of fiduciary duty claims in connection with their services as trustees of trusts created for the investment of pension plan assets.
- Defended investment managers against allegations of breaches of fiduciary duties in the investment of plan assets.
- Defended a trustee of a union health and welfare fund and pension fund against claims of breaches of fiduciary duties in connection with the management of the funds and investments of plan assets.
- Defended a large pension fund against a bank that claimed breaches of fiduciary duties and prohibited transactions in the administration and management of plan real estate investments.
- Represented a large global bank in an action brought by trustees of a profit sharing plan, alleging ERISA violations in the mishandling of plan funds by a bank fund manager. The case was filed in the Northern District of Texas, but was transferred on our motion to the Southern District of New York based on a forum selection clause in the plan documents and evidence, among other things, that the Northern District of Texas had greater backlogs than the SDNY. The case was eventually settled.
- Represented trustees who purchased annuity contracts from failed insurance companies against allegations of breaches of fiduciary duty.
- Defended trustees in a class action case filed by union employees challenging the benefits effects of a Pittsburgh-area plant closing; the federal court in Pittsburgh dismissed the claims and the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal.
- Represented trustees of retirement plans and benefit plans sponsored by a wide array of employers ranging from financial services companies to a supermarket chain in suits alleging breaches of fiduciary duties concerning treatment of individual participants.
- Defended one trustee against co-fiduciaries, who were members of a plan administrative committee, in allegations of a failure to make timely and reasonable efforts to collect delinquent employer contributions to the plan.
Health Benefits Cases
- Represent a railroad car manufacturer in litigation by the United Steelworkers and a class of union retirees over termination of their retiree medical benefits in the Western District of Pennsylvania.
- Represented an insurance company in a nationwide class action in federal court in San Francisco concerning changes in qualifications for agent health benefits.
- Defended an international mining and paper-making equipment manufacturer over termination of retiree medical benefits with a $98 million liability; the federal court ruled in favor of the company on summary judgment.
- Defended a meat packer in a declaratory judgment action against a union and a defendant class of retirees concerning the right to amend or terminate more than $100 million in retiree health benefits; we won in the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
- Defended an insurance company in a nationwide class action in connection with the modification of retiree medical benefits for agents and employees; we defeated the class claims on summary judgment and the plaintiffs' individual claims at trial and on appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
- Negotiated a nominal settlement of a class action filed in federal court in Indiana by policyholders of hospital and nursing home insurance against their health insurance company and a St. Louis bank as master trustee.
- Represented an auto parts manufacturer as plaintiff in a declaratory judgment action in federal court in Philadelphia against the UAW and a defendant class of retirees in Ohio and Pennsylvania concerning retiree health benefits; we reached an agreement to reduce the benefits from a value of $90 million to $40 million.
- Represented a global home goods manufacturer in litigation in the federal court in Ohio brought by the UAW over termination of retiree medical benefits.
- Defended an insurance company in a class action on behalf of its retirees challenging changes in retiree health insurance; we negotiated an agreed class definition and won a summary judgment motion on all claims, which was affirmed on appeal by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
Plan Termination Cases
- We won summary judgment for Sears on class claims in six consolidated class actions challenging Sears’ decision to reduce life insurance benefits for more than 80,000 retirees. This was a high-profile matter – well-organized retiree groups protested shareholder meetings, picketed stores, and established a website to register their displeasure.
- Represented the pension plan of a bank holding company and its subsidiaries in a class action over entitlement to surplus assets.
- Represented plan participants in a class action filed by a health care company interpleading plan assets in connection with termination of the plan.
- Defended a manufacturing company in an employee class action over the residual assets of a terminating pension plan; during the appeal of an adverse trial court ruling, we negotiated a Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation-approved settlement for the company, keeping most of the residual assets.
- Challenged an assessment of withdrawal liability under the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendment Act (MPPAA) upon sale of a company's assets, resulting in a favorable ruling by the Seventh Circuit.
- Defended a "parent" company against claims on the MPPAA obligations of a bankrupt affiliate in federal court in New York, with a prompt settlement for a fraction of the amount claimed.
Severance Pay Cases
- Represented an aerospace defense contractor in class action litigation over denial of severance benefits based on plan terms that afforded management the right to exercise discretion in awarding the benefits.
- Represented an international manufacturing company in a class action brought by a union over employee entitlement to severance benefits in connection with sale of company. The company won after a jury trial.
- Represented an international electrical manufacturing company in numerous lawsuits in different federal courts brought by former employees seeking benefits under a change-of-control separation plan; won all cases on summary judgment.
- Represented a health-services provider in connection with class actions over entitlement to severance benefits stemming from the company's divestiture of various divisions.
- Defended the bank trustee of the United States' third largest ESOP in a class action alleging breaches of fiduciary duties in the creation of the ESOP and in voting at director elections. The case settled with no contribution by the trustee.
- Represented ESOP administrators and trustees of an international shipping company in connection with the public and private sale of stock. Obtained a complete victory after a multi-week trial in Louisiana federal court.
- Advised an employer and ESOP trustee on a claims and appeals process after the adoption of significant restrictions on distributions from the plan.
- Represented the ESOP trustee of an airline's plan in federal court in Washington DC regarding decisions on behalf of the shares held by the ESOP in a tender offer.
- Advise ESOP fiduciaries and fiduciaries of other plans in connection with voting and other shareholder functions relating to allocated and unallocated shares held by the plans.
- Represented and counseled ESOP trustees in litigation between employee shareholders and management, where the ESOP trustee is not a named defendant, but ESOP administration is an issue.