Supreme Court Rules ERISA Equitable Relief Can’t Reach Nontraceable Settlement Proceeds

Employee benefits plans regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA or Act) often contain subrogation clauses requiring a plan participant to reimburse the plan for medical expenses if the participant later recovers money from a third party for his injuries.

On January 20, 2016, the US Supreme Court held, in MONTANILE v. BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE NATIONAL ELEVATOR INDUSTRY HEALTH BENEFIT PLAN that if an ERISA-plan participant wholly dissipates a third-party settlement on nontraceable items, the plan fiduciary may not rely on a subrogation provision in their health plan to bring suit under ERSA §502(a)(3) to attach the participant’s separate assets.  Plan fiduciaries are limited by §502(a)(3) to filing suits “to obtain . . . equitable relief.” The Court previously held that whether the relief requested “is legal or equitable depends on [1] the basis for [the plaintiff’s] claim and [2] the nature of the underlying remedies sought.” Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., 547 U. S. 356, 363.  In Montanile, the Court held that the Plan was not seeking equitable relief because it sought to recover against the defendant’s general assets, not specifically traceable assets. The lesson for Plan fiduciaries wishing to assert subrogation claims is to (1) put participants on specific notice of the subrogation claim as soon as the Plan learns of a significant incident of a type that might give rise to a subrogation claim (such as an accident); and (2) pursue the claim diligently before the participant receives settlement proceeds.  We routinely include in our welfare wrap plan documents a vigorous subrogation reservation to protect Plans’ subrogation rights to the fullest extent practical.

More on the Montanile case…

Montanile was seriously injured by a drunk driver, and his ERISA plan paid more than $120,000 for his medical expenses. Montanile later sued the drunk driver, obtaining a 500,000 settlement. Pursuant to the plan’s subrogation clause, the plan administrator (the Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan, or Board), sought reimbursement from the settlement. Montanile’s attorney refused that request and subsequently informed the Board that the fund would be transferred from a client trust account to Montanile unless the Board objected. The Board did not respond, and Montanile received the settlement.

Six months later, the Board sued Montanile in Federal District Court under §502(a)(3) of ERISA, which authorizes plan fiduciaries to file suit “to obtain . . . appropriate equitable relief . . . to enforce . . . the terms of the plan.” 29 U. S. C. §1132(a)(3). The Board sought an equitable lien on any settlement funds or property in Montanile’s possession and an order enjoining Montanile from dissipating any such funds. Montanile argued that because he had already spent almost all of the settlement, no identifiable fund existed against which to enforce the lien. The District Court rejected Montanile’s argument, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that even if Montanile had completely dissipated the fund, the plan was entitled to reimbursement from Montanile’s general assets. The Supreme Cour reversed for the reasons explained above.

icon Supreme Court Decision in Montanile

icon Supreme Court Decision in Sereboff

IRS Extends 2015 Deadlines for Health Information Reporting Returns

IRS announced today that it is extending the due dates for the 2015 information reporting requirements under sections 6055 and 6056 of the Code. Specifically, Notice 2016-4 extends the due date:

(1) for furnishing to individuals the 2015 Form 1095-B, Health Coverage, and the 2015 Form 1095-C, Employer Provided Health Insurance Offer and Coverage, from February 1, 2016, to March 31, 2016, and

(2) for filing with the Service the 2015 Form 1094-B, Transmittal of Health Coverage Information Returns, the 2015 Form 1095-B, Health Coverage, the 2015 Form 1094-C, Transmittal of Employer-Provided Health Insurance Offer and Coverage Information Returns, and the 2015 Form 1095-C, Employer-Provided Health Insurance Offer and Coverage, from February 29, 2016, to May 31, 2016, if not filing electronically, and from March 31, 2016, to June 30, 2016 if filing electronically.

The extensions of due dates provided by Notice 2016-4 apply only to section 6055 and section 6056 information returns and statements for calendar year 2015 filed and furnished in 2016 and do not require the submission of any request or other documentation to the IRS.

BACKGROUND

Section 6055 requires health insurance issuers, self-insuring employers, government agencies, and other providers of minimum essential coverage to file and furnish annual information returns and statements regarding coverage provided. Section 6056 requires applicable large employers (generally those with 50 or more full-time employees, including full-time equivalents, in the previous year) to file and furnish annual information returns and statements relating to the health insurance that the employer offers (or does not offer) to its full-time employees.

Section 6721 of the Code imposes a penalty for failing to timely file an information return or filing an incorrect or incomplete information return. Section 6722 of the Code imposes a penalty for failing to timely furnish an information statement or furnishing an incorrect or incomplete information statement. Section 6721 and 6722 penalties are imposed with regard to information returns and statements listed in section 6724(d) of the Code, and section 6724(d) lists the information returns and statements required by sections 6055 and 6056.

Final regulations, published on March 10, 2014, relating to the reporting requirements under sections 6055 and 6056, specify the deadlines for information reporting required by those sections. See our prior posts here and here.

The regulations under section 6055 provide that every person that provides minimum essential coverage to an individual during a calendar year must file with the Service an information return and a transmittal on or before the following February 28 (March 31 if filed electronically) and must furnish to the responsible individual identified on the return a written statement on or before January 31 following that calendar year. The Service has designated Form 1094-B and Form 1095-B to meet the requirements of the section 6055 regulations.

The regulations under section 6056 require every applicable large employer or a member of an aggregated group that is determined to be an applicable large employer (ALE member) to file with the Service an information return and a transmittal on or before February 28 (March 31 if filed electronically) of the year following the calendar year to which it relates and to furnish to full-time employees a written statement on or before January 31 following that calendar year. The Service has designated Form 1094-C and Form 1095-C to meet the requirements of the section 6056 regulations.

The preambles to the section 6055 and section 6056 regulations provide that, for 2015 coverage, the Service will not impose penalties under section 6721 and section 6722 on reporting entities that can show that they have made good faith efforts to comply with the information reporting requirements, and that this relief applies only to furnishing and filing incorrect or incomplete information, including TINs or dates of birth, reported on a return or statement and not to a failure to timely furnish or file a statement or return. Notice 2015-87 reiterates that relief, and Notice 2015-68, provides additional information about that relief with regard to reporting under section 6055. The preambles also note, however, the general rule that, under section 6724 and the related regulations, the section 6721 and section 6722 penalties may be waived if a failure to timely furnish or file a statement or return is due to reasonable cause, that is, the reporting entity demonstrates that it acted in a responsible manner and the failure is due to significant mitigating factors or events beyond the reporting entity’s control.

PENALTIES

Employers or other coverage providers that do not comply with the extended due dates provided by Notice 2016-4 are subject to penalties under section 6722 or 6721 for failure to timely furnish and file. However, the Service is encouraging employers and other coverage providers that do not meet the extended due dates to furnish and file, and the Service will take such furnishing and filing into consideration when determining whether to abate penalties for reasonable cause. The Service will also take into account whether an employer or other coverage provider made reasonable efforts to prepare for reporting the required information to the Service and furnishing it to employees and covered individuals, such as gathering and transmitting the necessary data to an agent to prepare the data for submission to the Service, or testing its ability to transmit information to the Service. In addition, the Service will take into account the extent to which the employer or other coverage provider is taking steps to ensure that it is able to comply with the reporting requirements for 2016.

Notice 2016-4

Class Action Lawsuit Accusing Employer of Reducing Employees’ Hours to Avoid Providing ACA Health Coverage

A May 8, 2015 class action lawsuit filed in New York alleges restaurant chain Dave & Buster’s, Inc. violated ERISA Section 510, which prohibits interfering with an employee’s attainment of an employee benefit under an ERISA benefit plan, when it converted up to 10,000 employees from full-time to part-time status in 2013 in an effort to right-sized its work force in response to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).   This is one of the first lawsuits we are aware of making this allegation.

The Complaint alleges Dave & Buster’s made numerous public statements that the reason they reduced employees’ hours of employment was to avoid the increased costs of providing health benefits to their full-time employees after the ACA.  If those allegations are proven true, the restaurant chain will have a difficult time defending their actions.

And worse is yet to come.  As we began warning employers back in September 2013 and October 2013, the risk of lawsuits challenging workforce restructuring and reductions in force is greater since the employer mandate and the individual mandate went into effect, due to anti-retaliation provisions included in the ACA, which prohibit any adverse employment action in retaliation for receiving subsidized coverage through the Marketplace.  As we explained back in 2013:

Imagine that Employee A … receives a federal subsidy for his marketplace coverage,…. [a few months later], your company determines it needs to conduct a reduction in force due to a business slowdown. Your HR manager works with senior management to carefully select RIF participants based on their skills, length of service with your company and the expected needs of your business.

The HR manager makes sure the RIF does not disproportionately impact people based on all of the protected classifications (race, nationality, sex, age, disability, etc.). …. Employee A is laid off …. 

Employee A files a claim against your company with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging that your company chose Employee A for the RIF because he received subsidized coverage through the marketplace.

Employee A can establish a case of retaliation under the Affordable Care Act merely by providing evidence that his receipt of a subsidy was a “contributing factor” in the RIF decision. And under the OSHA rules that have been proposed to enforce the retaliation prohibition, Employee A will be able to meet his burden merely by showing that the HR manager knew he was receiving a subsidy at or near the time he was laid off.

The burden then shifts to your company to establish by clear and convincing evidence (which is a high bar to clear) that it would have laid Employee A off even if he had not received the subsidy.

Inside Tucson Business, October 25, 2013.

The lessons to draw from all of this include:

  • If you are planning a RIF (or any other adverse employment action), consider whether anyone making the employment decisions knows that any of the affected employees is or has received subsidized coverage through the marketplace.
    • If so, address it like you would for other protected classifications like age, race, sex, national origin and disability status (by documenting your reasons for the decision before you take the action).
    • If not, include that fact in the documentation you create before taking the adverse employment action.
  • And above all, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by proclaiming to the world that you are reducing employees’ hours because you are trying to reduce your risk of incurring the employer mandate.