ERISA Deal’s $42M to St. Joseph’s Nurses Gets Initial OK

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In recent news, the St. Joseph’s Nurses received preliminary court approval for a $42 million settlement of claims. The New Jersey St. Joseph’s Healthcare System nurses won the settlement regarding claims that the system underfunded the pension plan. The deal was reached after the court stated that church-affiliated entities are exempt from ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act).

The initial approval was offered by U.S. District Judge John Michael Vasquez. The nurses indicate that the settlement would reduce the plan’s alleged underfunding by approximately 50%. The final fairness hearing was scheduled for March of 2018.

The deal was proposed in August by the St. Joseph’s nurses following a Supreme Court ruling that extended ERISA’s exemption for religious entities, which effectively negated one of the key arguments for the plaintiffs in the case. The nurses advised the court that St. Joseph’s already put an amount slightly more than the settlement amount into the plan. Under the settlement agreement, the hospital would also be required to ensure all benefits are paid out for the next seven years (at a minimum). 

It is meant to provide certain and immediate relief to the class through removing the uncertainty associated with continued litigation and improving the plan participants’ retirement security.

The suit is the result of a consolidation of two proposed class actions, both filed in May of 2016. One filed on behalf of Donna Garbaccio, a nurse out of the Paterson, New Jersey St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center from 1978 through 1998. This suit claimed that the pension plan was underfunded by more than $180 million. The second was filed on behalf of Mary Lynne Barker, nurse for St. Joseph’s from 1968 through 2003, Anne Marie Dalio, nurse for St. Joseph’s from 1984-1994, and Dorothy Flar, nurse for St. Joseph’s from 1990 through 1995. This suit claimed the plan was underfunded by a more substantial $210 million.

Plaintiffs alleged that St. Joseph’s violated ERISA law by denying protections to participants and beneficiaries of the pension plan through incorrect claims that the plan was exempt under ERISA due to qualifying as a “church plan.” This was one of the plaintiffs’ main arguments – that a church plan must be established by a church to qualify for the ERISA exemption. 

In the Supreme Court’s June 5th opinion, ERISA’s religious exemption provision was extended to plans that are maintained by church affiliates – even when an actual church did not actually establish the plan. This decision overturned federal circuit court rulings that the exemption would only apply in cases where the church itself actually established the benefit plan.

If you have questions about ERISA violations or if you need to discuss the intricacies of California employment law, please get in touch with one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

ERISA Suit Against Ascension Health Settled at $29.5M

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In early September 2017, Ascension Health agreed to a $29.5 million dollar settlement deal to settle claims in putative class lawsuits based on allegations that the faith-based health care company denied ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) protections to plan participants and beneficiaries.

The judge granted preliminary approval of the proposed class action settlement in consolidated putative class action suits when participants and beneficiaries of the Wheaton Franciscan Retirement Plan requested it in September. Ascension Health, a Missouri based organization, acquired the Wheaton Franciscan Services’ health care subsidiaries in the southeastern region of the Wisconsin state in spring of 2016.

According to plaintiff statements in court documents, the company guaranteed $29.5 million payment of benefits to members of the proposed settlement class in the event that trust assets attributable to the plan were insufficient to cover benefits.

In the original approval bid, plaintiffs made it clear that the obligation held by Ascension Health under the plan benefit guarantee would continue so long as the plan was sponsored by any of the releases. It was further noted that if plan assets and liabilities covering the settlement class members was transferred to a successor due to any type of corporate transaction, Ascension Health should ensure the successor honored the commitment/guarantee.

Plaintiffs filed suit initially in April 2016. This was followed by another putative class complaint in June 2016. The two cases were consolidated in January 2017. Allegations stated that Wheaton and Ascension denied ERISA protections to plan participants while claiming that the plan qualified as an ERISA-exempt “church plan.”

Plaintiffs alleged that the Defendants underfunded the plan by over $134.5 million. Allegations also stated that plan participants were improperly required to finish 5 years of service prior to becoming fully vested in their accrued benefits. In addition, plaintiffs state that the organization violated ERISA when they decreased accrued benefits by adding several amendments and filing to provide class members with required reports and/or statements.

The consolidated action was stayed by the court, pending the outcome of Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton in the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 2017, the opinion was issued stating that pension plans do not have to be established by churches in order to qualify as ERISA-exempt church plans.

Once this opinion was issued, the parties reached an agreement to settle the case.

If you have questions about ERISA or your rights in regards to the retirement plans provided by your employer, please get in touch with one of the experienced employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.