Possible Trump SCOTUS Pick Has Employer-Friendly ERISA Record

Employee Benefits News examines legal developments that impact the employee benefits and executive compensation employers provide, including federal and state legislation, rules from federal...

By Carmen Castro-Pagan

Judge William H. Pryor Jr. could be a net positive for employers and plan administrators that litigate employee benefit disputes if he’s nominated and confirmed as the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Pryor is said to be on President Donald Trump’s short list for Supreme Court nominees, along with Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit and Thomas Hardiman of the Third Circuit.

Pryor, who has been sitting in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit since 2004, was nominated by George W. Bush in 2003 and confirmed in 2005. He has participated in more than 40 opinions involving the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Of these, he has only authored five opinions, related to disability benefits claims, subrogation, standing and the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.

Pryor in 2014 joined a panel that barred the Obama administration from enforcing the contraceptive coverage regulations under the ACA. He issued a lengthy concurring opinion explaining why Eternal World Television Network, a Catholic media network, was likely to beat the ACA’s contraceptive coverage mandate on the merits. Last year, he sided with the government, finding that an accommodation for religious nonprofit entities didn’t substantially burden their religious rights.

Pryor, in other precedential opinions, has mainly sided with employers and administrators. He ruled in favor of Coca-Cola Co., holding that the company acted reasonably when it reduced employees’ disability benefits to account for their receipt of Social Security benefits. He also held that Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co. provided a full and fair review of an appealed claim despite not giving the participant certain medical records used to deny her initial disability benefit claim.

Pro-Employer Stance

Pryor has also joined more than 30 unpublished opinions in the past 12 years, involving issues over fiduciary liability, exhaustion of remedies and statute of limitations.

He ruled against a proposed class of dentists who challenged WellPoint Health Networks Inc.'s reimbursement method because they failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. He also joined a panel that reversed a class certification in an action challenging Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama Inc.'s imposition of deductibles on participants.

Pryor, on a number of occasions, has deferred to the administrators’ interpretations of plan language. In one case, he ruled that employer contributions to 401(k) plans don’t become plan assets prior to being remitted absent “specific and clear” plan language providing otherwise. He also reversed a district court decision against Monsanto Co., holding that the lower court ignored certain ruled in the plan and looked to two other equivalency tests under ERISA to determine service hours.

Pryor, in another employer-friendly decision, held that a retired mine worker wasn’t entitled to interest on a lump-sum disability benefit payment because the pension plan didn’t provide that interest on delayed benefits would be considered a “benefit.”

As to disability claims, Pryor has sided in most occasions with employers and administrators, including Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co., Aetna Life Insurance Co., Wachovia Corp., AT&T Inc., and BellSouth Telecommunications Inc. However, he has ruled for participants in actions against Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., Prudential Insurance Co. of America, General Dynamics Corp., Hartford and Wachovia.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carmen Castro-Pagan in Washington at ccastro-pagan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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