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Court Declines Equitable Relief Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to take up 2 cases involving employee benefit plan fiduciaries accused of making serious plan administration errors.

The court today said it has refused to review Amschwand, Melissa vs. Spherion Corp. et al. and Goeres, Louis G. vs. Charles Schwab & Company et al.

Amschwand involves a plaintiff who has accused an employer that was a plan fiduciary of repeatedly and incorrectly telling her late husband that he had succeeded at buying group term life insurance.

Goeres involves a plaintiff who has accused an employer that was a plan fiduciary of repeatedly and incorrectly telling him that he was not the beneficiary of the retirement plan of a man who had died.

Between the time the plaintiff began seeking control of the plan and the time the fiduciary acknowledged that the plaintiff was the beneficiary, the value of the plan had dropped to $700,000, from $1.2 million, the plaintiff says.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act normally prevents employees from suing benefit plans for damages.

Amschwand and Goeres argued that they ought to be able to sue plan fiduciaries that had breached their fiduciary duty through a provision of ERISA that permits ERISA plan participants to sue for “equitable relief.”

The plaintiffs said the traditional doctrine of equitable relief would permit plaintiffs to sue plan fiduciaries who had made serious mistakes to make the plaintiffs whole.

The fiduciaries countered that fiduciary relief would permit plan members and beneficiaries to sue only for premiums paid into a plan, insurance company benefit payments clearly earmarked for the plan members or beneficiaries, or transfers of other assets that clearly ought to belong to the plaintiffs.

A district court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Amschwand, and a district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Goeres.

The U.S. Department of Labor filed a brief supporting the Amschwand appeal.

The portions of the district court and appeals court decisions appealed to the Supreme Court deal with ERISA provisions governing plaintiffs’ ability to sue plan fiduciaries and not with the merits of the underlying cases.

A representative for the defendant in Amschwand was not immediately available to comment.

Kim Zeldin, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the defendants in Goeres, said she is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to let the appellate court decision in that case stand.

Teresa Renaker, an Oakland, Calif., lawyer who represents Louis Goeres, and Amir Alavi, a Houston lawyer who represents Amschwand, said they are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the benefit plan equitable relief issue.

Today, when plan fiduciaries make errors, “there’s no remedy in the vast majority of these cases,” Renaker said.

Alavi said he continues to believe that benefit plan suits based on the doctrine of equitable relief can result in remedies that make plan members whole.