Employers use law as shield in benefits suits

The Associated Press

Dying of cancer, Thomas Amschwand did everything he was told to make sure his wife would collect on the life insurance policy he had through his employer.

"He was obsessed with dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't'," Melissa Amschwand-Bellinger recalled about her husband, who died in 2001 at age 30.

But Spherion Corp., the temporary staffing company where Amschwand worked, told Amschwand-Bellinger she would not receive any of the $426,000 in benefits she believed she was due. When she went to court, Spherion succeeded in getting her lawsuit thrown out. The Supreme Court on June 27 refused to review the case.

Amschwand-Bellinger received a refund of the few thousand dollars in insurance premiums she and her husband had dutifully paid. The total, she said, would not cover the costs of his funeral.

The story has played out often under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Designed to protect employee benefits, the law has been used by employers as a shield against suits.

Federal appeals courts, interpreting Supreme Court decisions dating to 1993, consistently have said companies that offer health, life and retirement benefits under ERISA cannot be sued for large amounts of money. Instead, they can be sued only for typically smaller sums such as Amschwand's insurance premiums.

"The facts . . . scream out for a remedy beyond the simple return of premiums," Judge Fortunato Benavides of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said in the Amschwand case. "Regrettably, under existing law, it is not available."

The Bush administration has argued that the appeals courts are misreading the precedents and has asked the high court at least twice to clarify the earlier rulings. So far it has refused.

Congress, which could amend ERISA to make clear such suits are allowed, also has taken no action. The result, in the view of ERISA experts, the administration and some lawmakers, is perverse.

"The beneficiary under the policy didn't get the promised benefit," said Colleen Medill, an expert on ERISA at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "To say we're just going to return your premiums, that's a total farce. That's not what they paid the premiums for. They paid them for the benefits."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a recent hearing that before ERISA became law, employees clearly could sue for benefits in state courts.

The court rulings, Leahy said, have left people "more vulnerable than they were before the law was passed."

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