The United States Supreme Court has ruled in the case of CNH Indus. N.V. v. Reese, that courts cannot simply infer lifetime vesting of retiree health benefits from a collective bargaining agreement. Instead, lifetime vesting must be expressly written into the agreement.
The employer in this case provided health benefits to certain employees who were eligible for benefits under the employer’s pension plan, in accordance with a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). When the CBA expired in 2004, some retirees sued, arguing that their health benefits were vested for life.
While the lawsuit was pending, the Supreme Court decided M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett, which held that courts must interpret CBAs according to “ordinary principles of contract law.” The trial court in this case then ruled for the retirees, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, relying on presumptions the 6th Circuit originally established in UAW v. Yard-Man, Inc., even though the Supreme Court had explicitly rejected those presumptions in Tackett. The Sixth Circuit’s decision turned on its holding that the CBA’s 2004 expiration date was inconclusive as to whether the retiree health benefits terminated in 2004 or were vested for life because (1) the CBA specified that certain benefits, such as life insurance, ceased at a time different from other provisions, and (2) the CBA tied health care benefits to pension eligibility. The court acknowledged that Tackett precluded it from inferring vesting based on these plan provisions, but concluded that the provisions nevertheless rendered the CBA ambiguous, allowing consideration of extrinsic evidence that supported lifetime vesting.
The Supreme Court reversed, stating that “inferences applied in Yard-Man and its progeny” do not represent ordinary principles of contract law and therefore cannot be used to generate a reasonable inference that then creates ambiguity. The Court acknowledged that, when a contract is ambiguous, courts can consult extrinsic evidence to determine the parties’ intentions—but a contract is not ambiguous unless it is susceptible to at least two reasonable but conflicting meanings. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the CBA contained a durational clause that applied to all benefits, with no exception for retiree health benefits, and that therefore there is only one reasonable interpretation of the CBA – that it does not vest retiree health benefits for life.
This case is re-assuring for employers offering retiree medical plans – that they are less at risk of inadvertently creating a vested lifetime retiree health benefit than if the Plantiffs had prevailed in this case. However, the long standing advice still stands: Employers should be explicit in their retiree health plan documents and SPDs that the benefit is not vested and that the employer retains full and unfettered discretion to amend or terminate the plan and the benefits at any time.