Retiree Health Benefit Dispute Draws Multiple Briefs, Including ‘True' Amicus Brief


In a surprising move, Bethesda, Md.-based law firm Goldstein &  Russell P.C. has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in an upcoming retiree benefit case that purports to be solely informational and in support of neither party (M& G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett,U.S., No. 13-1010, arguments scheduled11/10/14).

In the brief, Goldstein—which is the law firm of Thomas C. Goldstein, co-founder of Supreme Court tracking website SCOTUSblog—said it had “no agenda or desire to direct the outcome of the case.” Rather, the brief provided data on the terms of collective bargaining agreements across the country, so that the court could have a “thorough understanding of how the legal rule it adopts will affect the interpretation of other CBAs.”

Although it remains to be seen what the justices will make of this new kind of brief, the brief itself could prove useful to practitioners in the world of retiree health benefits, as it provided aggregated data about the terms of CBAs with 100 different public and private employers, including Boeing Co., Campbell Soup Co., Continental Airlines Inc. and Harvard University.

However, William T. Payne, a partner with Feinstein Doyle Payne & Kravec LLC in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 23 that the brief may be of limited benefit to the court, because it didn't reflect a scientific sampling and didn't focus on the type of unions and settings where disputes over retiree health benefits typically arise.

In addition to Goldstein's brief, the case garnered eight other amicus briefs on behalf of various industry groups, labor organizations and employers, with the majority of the briefs encouraging the court to reject the so-called Yard-Man inference in favor of vested retiree benefits.

The case comes to the Supreme Court by way of a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ordering retirees of M& G Polymers USA LLC reinstated in the company's health plan. Applying the retiree-friendly Yard-Man inference—a judicial inference in favor of vesting that has been rejected by other circuits—the Sixth Circuit agreed with a federal district court that the retirees' benefits had vested under the language of the plan.

‘True' Amicus Brief 

The Goldstein brief described itself as “the rare true ‘amicus‘ brief,” because its only purpose was “to provide the Court with factual information that may be useful in guiding its decision.”

According to the brief, it's very rare for CBAs to include clear, express language on the issue of vested retiree health benefits. However, the brief said that 6 percent of CBAs provide that retirees will receive health benefits “for life,” while 22 percent link retirees' eligibility for health benefits to their pension status.

Another 7 percent of CBAs include language reserving the right to amend or alter retiree health benefits, the brief said, while 23 percent of the CBAs provided that benefits would be guaranteed only throughout the life of the bargaining agreement. Thirty-five percent of the CBAs said that health benefits would end when a retiree became eligible for Medicare, typically at age 65, the brief said.

Further, the brief said that 14 percent of CBAs said that benefits “will continue” without specifying for how long, while 16 percent were “silent” on the issue.            

For More Information 

Text of the brief filed by Goldstein & Russell is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5jns.

Text of the brief filed by the Council on Labor Law Equality and the Society for Human Resources Management is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5jg8.

Text of the brief filed by the ERISA Industry Committee and the American Benefits Council is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5jq4.

Text of the brief filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5jqx.

Text of the brief filed by the National Association of Manufacturers is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5jrs.

Text of the brief filed by Whirlpool Corp. is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5jsn.

Text of the brief filed by Labor & Benefits Law Professors is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5kdl.

Text of the brief filed by the retirement committees is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5kep.

Text of the brief filed by the AFL-CIO is at http://op.bna.com/pen.nsf/r?Open=jwie-9q5kfp.

Excerpted from a story that ran in Pension & Benefits Daily (10/22/2014).

Design benefit plans and respond quickly and confidently to a range of potential issues with a free trial to theBenefits Practice Resource Center.