By Ada W. Dolph and Justin T. Curley
With President Obama’s recent nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court, we thought our loyal readers would be interested to learn a little about Judge Garland’s ERISA jurisprudence while on the D.C. Circuit. While Judge Garland’s oeuvre in this area of the law is limited despite his 19 years on the appellate bench, it does nonetheless reflect his methodical and restrained reputation, and his penchant for consensus-building, as the decisions that he has been a part of were all unanimous while still peppered with both Democratic- and Republican-appointed judges.
Judge Garland has authored two decisions that have substantively discussed ERISA and its regulations. In Boivin v. U.S. Airways, Inc., 446 F.3d 148 (D.C. Cir. 2006), retired pilots brought suit against the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”), seeking to compel the PBGC to correct alleged errors in its calculation of estimated retirement benefits due the pilots under ERISA and the pilots’ pension plan. In a thorough and carefully crafted opinion, Judge Garland wrote for the panel that the pilots’ claims must be dismissed without prejudice, because the pilots had not yet exhausted their administrative remedies provided by the PBGC, and that they were required to do so before seeking judicial review. In so holding, the panel observed that while ERISA does not expressly require exhaustion of administrative remedies or condition judicial review upon “final” agency action, sound judicial discretion, the case law and the circumstances of the case favored requiring exhaustion.
In Francis v. Rodman Local Union 201 Pension Fund, 367 F.3d 937 (D.C. Cir. 2004), Judge Garland wrote the opinion which affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, reasoning that the plaintiff was not entitled to recover pension benefits alleged owed to him under the terms of an ERISA plan based on the additional hours that he arguably would have worked but for alleged racial discrimination charged and settled in prior litigation. Judge Garland analyzed the terms of the pension plan and the settlement agreement and laid out how the facts of the case demonstrated that the parties never intended the prior settlement payment to plaintiff to generate additional pension benefits, and noted that the plaintiff still retained the right to receive pension benefits under the plan for the hours that he actually worked.
While Judge Garland has not authored an opinion in a denial of benefits case, the decisions in which he participated as a member of the panel do not lean one way or the other, and instead reflect the reasoned, middle of the road approach for which he is known. In Fitts v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 520 F.3d 499 (D.C. Cir. 2008), the plaintiff challenged her disability plan’s determination that her bipolar disorder was a mental illness, as opposed to a physical illness, and therefore limited her disability benefits to two years. The district court had concluded that the meaning of mental illness was ambiguous, and resolved the ambiguity in favor of the plaintiff. On appeal, Judge Garland and the two other judges reversed, noting the conflicting evidence regarding the causes of bipolar disorder in general and of plaintiff’s bipolar illness in particular. Given the genuine dispute about the possible causes of bipolar disorder, and in light of the defendant’s evidence casting doubt on the cause of plaintiff’s illness, the panel ruled that the district court should not have granted summary judgment for the plaintiff.
In White v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 210 F.3d 412 (D.C. Cir. 2000), the plaintiff had filed her appeal of a denial of benefits three months late, and the defendant refused to consider the untimely appeal. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant. On appeal, Judge Garland and the panel reversed, holding that the denial notice did not substantially comply with the notice requirements of ERISA and its implementing regulations, and that therefore the plaintiff’s 60-day appeal deadline never began to run. Specifically, the denial notice failed to include a fourth reason for the benefits denial, which the panel concluded was a “major omission,” as it precluded the plaintiff from perfecting her benefit claim for appeal.
Judge Garland’s only decision touching on ERISA preemption is O’Connor v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of Am., 146 F.3d 959 (D.C. Cir. 1998), a case in which the panel reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff had argued that the district court erred because the defendant failed to submit any evidence that it was prejudiced by the plaintiff’s failure to file timely proof of her claim. The plaintiff relied upon California’s so-called “notice-prejudice” rule, which provides that a defense based on an insured’s failure to give timely notice of a claim to the insurer requires the insurer to prove that it suffered substantial, actual prejudice due to the delayed notice. While the parties agreed that the notice-prejudice rule “relates to” an employee benefit plan and therefore falls within ERISA’s general preemption provision, they disputed whether ERISA’s savings clause for “any law of any State which regulates insurance, banking, or securities” applied. The panel concluded that the savings clause did apply because the notice-prejudice rule regulates insurance, and that accordingly ERISA does not preempt California’s notice-prejudice rule.
In sum, Judge Garland’s ERISA jurisprudence, albeit limited, reflects his reputation as a judicial centrist who is not reflexively pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant. The ERISA decisions in which he has participated, either as an author or panel member, are thoughtfully considered and well-reasoned, reveal consensus and bend toward the middle.