ERISA Litigation

Jenner & Block prides itself on close collaboration between its ERISA litigators and transactional benefit lawyers, resulting in a team that truly understands often-convoluted ERISA legal and factual issues.  As a result, the Firm’s ERISA litigators have been successful in both resolving difficult litigation and avoiding it through proactive client counseling.

Our ERISA litigation work includes:

Defending breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA.  We have defended a variety of businesses and ERISA plans against claims brought by participants, beneficiaries and the Secretary of Labor alleging violation of the numerous and complex fiduciary duties created by ERISA.

Counseling pension fund managers with respect to ERISA claims.  The Firm’s ERISA litigators have advised and defended a variety of financial institutions and money managers with respect to questions and claims arising out of ERISA’s fiduciary duties to invest prudently, to diversify plan investments, and to abstain from the transactions prohibited by ERISA.

Defending claims for benefits under ERISA. Jenner & Block attorneys regularly appear in federal courts across the country on behalf of ERISA plans to defend decisions of plan administrators to deny benefits in actions brought by individual plaintiffs, numerous plaintiffs, and classes of plaintiffs. The Firm’s litigators have a record of prevailing in denial of benefits litigation on pre-trial motions, eliminating the time and expense of trials.

Defending ERISA claims that arise from reductions-in-workforce. Jenner & Block’s ERISA litigators are active in defending ERISA claims brought by plan participants and beneficiaries that arise out of clients' restructurings and reduction-in-force strategies, such as offers of severance benefits or “golden handshake” early-retirement incentives.

Litigating claims for contributions to union multiemployer benefits plans. We have defended both businesses and individual business owners against ERISA claims brought by union multiemployer plans (also known as Taft-Hartley plans) alleging that contributions are owed to the plans.

Litigating ERISA claims in a bankruptcy context. Working closely with attorneys in the Firm’s Bankruptcy/Corporate Restructuring Practice, our ERISA litigators have defended the interests of the Firm’s clients in bankruptcy courts throughout the country.

Counseling clients on avoiding benefits litigation. Our ERISA litigators are committed to working with in-house counsel, HR personnel and benefits coordinators to design and implement litigation-tested strategies for avoiding ERISA claims.  The attorneys in the practice have presented several seminars to clients’ HR and benefits staff with an eye toward using education to eliminate certain practices that may run afoul of ERISA.

Jenner & Block is privileged to advise and represent leading businesses in the successful and efficient resolution of a variety of potential and actual ERISA litigation matters.  A representative list of the Firm's clients in this regard includes:

Financial Institutions and Insurance Companies. 

  • ABN AMRO and LaSalle Bank N.A.
  • Midland National Life Insurance Company

Defense and Aerospace Corporations

  • General Dynamics Corporation

Manufacturing and Industrial Companies

  • Brach’s Confections, Inc.
  • Pactiv Corporation (formerly known as Tenneco Packaging)
  • Pechiney Plastic Packaging (the plastic packaging division of the former American National Can Company)
  • SPX Corporation

Jenner & Block has been involved in many of the major ERISA cases in the Seventh Circuit and many ERISA cases elsewhere.  Several cases handled by the practice have led to important published decisions.  Some recent examples include: 

  • Ames v. American National Can Co., 170 F.3d 751 (7th Cir. 1999).  The Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment for Jenner & Block’s client, holding that plan participants would not be excused from failing to exhaust remedies; a predecessor employer did not breach its fiduciary duty in structuring transitional benefits; a predecessor employer did not breach its fiduciary duty by telling employees that its ERISA plan was “comparable” to that of successor employer; participants were not entitled to disclosure of names of plan’s individual fiduciaries; and the lower court did not abuse its discretion in declining to fine the predecessor employer for failing to give participants a copy of the severance plan.
  • Jackson v. E.J. Brach Corp., 176 F.3d 971 (7th Cir. 1999).  Employees terminated as part of a reduction-in-force sued Jenner & Block’s client alleging violations of ERISA in connection with the company’s administration of its severance benefits.  Jenner & Block attorneys obtained dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims arguing that the allegations in the complaint failed to adequately allege the “bad faith” necessary to entitle plaintiffs to monetary relief under ERISA.  The Firm successfully defended the District Court’s decision on appeal.
  • Radford v. General Dynamics Corp., 151 F.3d 396 (5th Cir. 1998).  Retiree sued General Dynamics Corporation for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA.  Jenner & Block attorneys obtained dismissal of plaintiff’s claims, arguing that the statute of limitations set forth for ERISA breach of fiduciary claims applied to claim seeking individualized equitable relief for breach of fiduciary obligations based on alleged negligent misrepresentations by employer/General Dynamics Corporation; and that the statute of limitations is not tolled during the exhaustion of administrative remedies.
  • Moriarty v. Glueckert Funeral Home, Ltd., 155 F.3d 859 (7th Cir. 1998).  Pension Fund sued Jenner & Block’s client alleging violation of ERISA for failure to make contributions to the Fund.  The District Court found in favor of the Fund.

Jenner & Block attorneys successfully advocated for reversal of the District Court’s decision, arguing that, under ERISA, the federal common law of agency was applicable to the question of whether the company had agreed to make contributions to the Fund, and that the District Court applied the wrong standard.

  • Panaras v. Liquid Carbonic Indus. Corp., 74 F.3d 786 (7th Cir. 1996).  Employee terminated after twenty-six years sued Jenner & Block’s client alleging that the company violated ERISA by failing to provide notice of a change in the terms of its severance benefits plan, which conditioned eligibility for benefits on a release of claims against the company.  Jenner & Block attorneys obtained dismissal of plaintiff’s claim in the District Court.  The Firm successfully defended dismissal of plaintiff’s claim in the court of appeals, arguing that plaintiff’s complaint failed to allege sufficient prejudice resulting from his lack of notice of the changes in the severance benefits plan.
  • Plumbers’ Pension Fund, Local 130 v. Niedrich, 891 F.2d 1297 (7th Cir. 1989).  Employee pension funds sued former president and secretary of dissolved company individually, seeking plan contributions allegedly owed.  Representing the former executives, Jenner & Block won a dismissal of the claims in the trial court.  The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the former executives were not personally liable under ERISA for the company’s failure to make contributions to employee funds.
  • Leigh v. Engle, 858 F.2d 361 (7th Cir. 1988). After a trial on the appropriate remedy, the plaintiff class appealed an adverse trial decision.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding that the defendants, Jenner & Block’s clients, did not breach their fiduciary duties by delaying distribution of trust assets; trust administrators were entitled to reimbursement of fees incurred in fighting claims that ultimately failed; and trust beneficiaries were entitled to reimbursement of fees incurred only up to the point of prior decision by the appellate court.
  • Donovan v. Estate of Fitzsimmons, 778 F.2d 298 (7th Cir. 1985).  Jenner & Block represented the Estate of Fitzsimmons against the Secretary of Labor.  The Secretary of Labor appealed the district court’s approval of a comprehensive settlement of actions brought by participants in the Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund (“CSPF”) alleging that the benefits structure and investment management were illegal and that past investment mismanagement gave rise to a derivative action on behalf of the CSPF against other defendants.  The Seventh Circuit rejected the Secretary of Labor’s argument, upholding the agreed settlement.
  • Murray v. The Tribune Co., 2006 WL 2861016 (N.D. Ill. 2006).  Participants in Tribune Company’s 401(k) plan brought a putative class action for breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA, alleging that Tribune and certain of its officers and directors breached their fiduciary duties in connection with a drop in Tribune stock price.  Plaintiffs claimed the drop resulted from the correction of artificially high stock prices caused by the overstatement of reported circulation of certain Tribune publications.  The district court agreed with Jenner & Block attorneys that, among other things, plaintiffs failed to allege a causal connection between the circulation reports and the drop in stock price, and accordingly dismissed all claims with prejudice.
  • Hudson v. General Dynamics Corp., 118 F. Supp. 2d 226 (D. Conn. 2000).  Pension plan participants brought an action against their employer, alleging breach of fiduciary obligations under ERISA for failure to disclose and for misrepresenting factual information regarding contemplated retirement incentives to potential retirees.  Jenner & Block attorneys successfully argued that the employer’s failure to disclose the possibility of retirement incentives was not a material misrepresentation and the employer was not under a duty to update its responses to inquiries regarding contemplated retirement incentives prior to the point that such changes were under serious consideration.
  • Hudson v. General Dynamics Corp., 73 F. Supp. 2d 201 (D. Conn. 1999).  Employees filed suit against their employer relating to the administration of an employee benefits plan.  The employees moved to compel the production of documents prepared by counsel for the employer relating to future plan amendments and enhancements.  The district court agreed with Jenner & Block attorneys that the attorney-client privilege protected legal advice to the employer regarding plan amendments.
  • Hudson v. General Dynamics Corp., 186 F.R.D. 271 (D. Conn. 1999).  Jenner & Block’s client, General Dynamics Corporation, announced an early retirement program and recently retired employees filed suit, alleging breach of fiduciary duty for General Dynamics Corporation’s failure to provide complete information in response to inquiries regarding retirement.  The court made an important discovery motion ruling in favor of General Dynamics Corporation, holding that only those portions of the plan fiduciary’s communications with counsel relating to employees’ existing benefit plan were discoverable, while those concerning the plan fiduciary’s consideration of an amendment or changes in benefit plan were not discoverable.
  • Kaelin v. Tenneco Inc. et al., 28 F. Supp. 2d 478 (N.D. Ill. 1998).  A former employee claimed entitlement to restricted stock benefits under ERISA, common law and a state wage payment statute.  Jenner & Block successfully obtained summary judgment against the ERISA claim, demonstrating that the plan at issue was not governed by ERISA, and dismissal of the state law claims.  Jenner & Block also obtained summary judgment against the state law claims in the later-filed state court action.
  • In re Lineal Group, Inc., 226 B.R. 608 (M.D. Tenn. 1998).  Representing the Official Unsecured Creditors’ Committee, Jenner & Block objected to claims by the early retirees of debtor, who sought to hold estate liable for the difference between what retirees would ultimately receive from the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and what they were promised under debtor's defined benefit plan, on the basis that retirees’ claims were preempted by ERISA.  Both the Bankruptcy and District Courts sustained the Creditors’ Committee’s objections.
  • Ecton v. Van Houten North America, et al., 1996 WL 296587 (N.D. Ill. May 31, 1996).  A terminated chief executive officer sued for benefits under an executive severance benefits plan and brought related common law claims.  Jenner & Block successfully obtained summary judgment on all claims, successfully defending the propriety of the plan amendments at issue and demonstrating that the executive had been terminated for cause, thus defeating the claim for benefits.
  • Martin v. General Dynamics Long Term Disability Benefits Plan, 917 F. Supp. 475 (N.D. Tex. 1996).  Participant brought action against long-term disability plan, former employer and insurance company to recover long-term disability benefits without deduction for workers’ compensation or social security benefits.  Jenner & Block successfully argued in a motion for summary judgment that the plan participant became totally disabled on the last day of work and was subject to deduction for workers’ compensation and social security benefits.
  • Chandler v. Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., 850 F. Supp. 728 (N.D. Ill. 1994).  Employee sued former employer, Jenner & Block’s client, claiming that he was improperly denied long term disability benefits and retaliatorily discharged in violation of ERISA.  Former employer counterclaimed for credit against disability benefits already paid for social security benefits received by former employee, based on the terms of the former employer's benefits plan.  Jenner & Block attorneys successfully argued, on a motion for summary judgment, that the former employer’s decision to deny benefits was supported by settlement evidence; no evidence supported plaintiff's claim of retaliatory discharge; and former employee was entitled to refund from plaintiff of benefits under the terms of its benefits plan.
  • DeGrooth v. General Dynamics Corp., 837 F. Supp. 485 (D. Conn. 1993), aff'd 28 F.3d 103 (2nd Cir. 1994) (Table No. 93-9326).  Jenner & Block was lead counsel for General Dynamics Corporation in this putative class action brought by three employees for alleged ERISA violations.  The plaintiffs alleged that General Dynamics Corporation improperly reduced their early retirement benefits under an ERISA welfare benefits plan.  The district court dismissed the case upon Jenner & Block’s argument that General Dynamics Corporation had the right to reduce benefits because its Summary Plan Description expressly reserved the right to amend or terminate the plan.
  • Leigh v. Engle, 669 F. Supp. 1390 (N.D. Ill. 1987).  Beneficiaries of employees’ profit sharing trusts brought breach of fiduciary action against trust administrators, parent of company that sponsored trusts, major shareholder of parent and trustee.  The breach of fiduciary claim raised remedy issues in connection with investing pension funds in takeover efforts.  Jenner & Block represented defendants before the district court, which held that none of the defendants profited by improper investment of trust assets; none of the defendants breached their fiduciary duties by delaying distribution of trust assets to beneficiaries; and administrators and trustees were entitled to reimbursement for expenses.