Wednesday, January 12, 2011

ERISA Rights On Benefit Entitlements

My client was injured in an automobile accident and medical expenses were paid by his employer under an ERISA plan. Subsequently, he died from an unrelated cause. I represent his wife as the personal representative of the estate for the injuries sustained in the accident. No claims have been made against his estate from the ERISA sponsored plan and pursuant to the state law all claims are barred based on the statute running. My question when and if there is a limitation for the presentment of an ERISA lien on a decedent's estate? What authority would speak to this limitation?

Thank you for the question. First let me say that I have seen attorneys successfully use the argument that an ERISA plan did not assert a claim against the estate in time and thus they have no right. Often times such an argument is used to greatly reduce the claim but not as a complete bar (leverage). As a general matter an ERISA plan’s statute of limitation is controlled by state contract law. This period begins when the plaintiff receives the third party recovery.

There is only one statute of limitations found in ERISA and it deals exclusively with a breach of fiduciary duty. ERISA Section 413. Generally under ERISA there are five causes of action (all found under Section 502). The fiduciary duty cause of action is under Section 502(a)(2) but under the facts of your case this cause of action is not applicable. The cause of action which is applicable is ERISA Section 502(a)(3) which provides appropriate equitable relief to enforce any terms of the plan. When an ERISA plan brings an action to enforce its right to reimbursement it does so under this section. Thus there is no specific statute of limitations in ERISA for these types of cases.

When there is a cause of action based on benefits entitlement or other ERISA rights (not fiduciary claim and thus no applicable SOL in ERISA), federal courts have looked to the most closely analogous state statute of limitations. (Miles v. New York State Teamsters Conference Pension & Ret. Fund Employee Pension Benefit Plan, 698 F.2d 593 (2nd Cir. 1983), Advisory Comm. For Stock Ownership $ Trust for Mont. Banc-system, Inc. v. Kuhns, 1996 US App LEXIS 2273, (9th Cir. 1996); Nikaido v. Centennial Life Ins., 42 F.3d 557 (9th Cir. 1994); Administrative Comm. of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Soles ex rel. estate of Hollander, 2003 WL 21688109 (8th Cir. 2003); Duchek v. BCBS of NE, 153 F.3d 648, 649 (8th Cir.1998).

Additionally, the Supreme Court has told us that when Congress does not provide a SOL for claims arising under federal statutes, a court should normally apply an appropriate state SOL. Reed v. United Transp. Union, 488 US 319 (1989). As mentioned ERISA plans are limited to seeking “appropriate equitable relief”. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3)(B) aka Section 502(a)(3). This relief must be sought through the enforcement of the terms of its plan. Because ERISA does not say anything more than appropriate equitable relief, the plan language alone controls the right to recovery. Because an ERISA Plan’s right to recovery is controlled exclusively by the terms of a written plan the most appropriate and analogous state statute certainly has to be the contract SOL. BCBS Alabama v. Sanders, 138 F.3d 1347 (11th Cir. 1998).

I hope you found the response helpful. Thanks.
Michael Russell, Esq.