On February 20, 2018, the Supreme Court decided CNH Industrial N.V. v. Reese, 574 U.S. ___ (2018), which raised, for the second time in three years, the question of how courts should interpret collective-bargaining agreements (“CBAs”).  Reese involved a dispute between retirees and their former employer, CNH, about whether an expired 1998 CBA created a vested right to lifetime health benefits.  In a per curiam opinion, the Court found that a straightforward reading of the CBA compelled the conclusion that retiree health benefits expired when the CBA expired in 2004.  The Court’s opinion emphasized the significance of CBA expiration dates for retiree health benefits and forcefully reiterated its decision in M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett, 574 U.S. ___ (2015), that collective-bargaining agreements must be interpreted according to “ordinary principles of contract law.”

Continue Reading Supreme Court Deals Another Blow to Sixth Circuit’s “Yard-Man Inferences”

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Obergefell v. Hodges is big news: it held that the 14th Amendment requires states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize lawful out-of-state same-sex marriages, and thus legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.  In a final section that begins with a philosopher’s take — “No union is more profound than marriage…”  — and ends with a jurist’s — “It is so ordered.” — the Court captured the attention of SCOTUS junkies and the rest of the country alike, leading to an outpouring of celebrations, headlines, social commentary and musing about the future.

Obergefell clearly is of cultural importance and has personal significance for many people, but what does it mean for private sector employers and their employee benefit plans?  Surprisingly little.  Private sector employee benefits are governed primarily by federal law, which had its watershed moment on this issue in 2013 when the Supreme Court required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage in United States v. Windsor.


Continue Reading Marriage Equality Decision Is Big News (But May Have Little Impact on Private Sector Employee Benefit Plans)

The Supreme Court held on March 25, 2015 in Young v. UPS that a plaintiff alleging pregnancy discrimination based upon the denial of an accommodation may proceed under the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework generally applied to Title VII discrimination claims. The Court’s decision, which resulted in a remand to the Fourth Circuit, surprised many observers in rejecting the arguments set forth by both parties in the case and instead setting forth a new rule for applying the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).
Continue Reading Supreme Court Makes New Rule in Analyzing Pregnancy Discrimination Act

A complaint filed this month against FedEx Corporation and its pension plan asks a court to apply the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor v. United States retroactively.  The case is Schuett v. FedEx Corporation.  The plaintiff is the surviving same-sex spouse of a FedEx pension plan participant who died six days before the Court issued its opinion in Windsor.

Case background.  The participant and the plaintiff began living as a couple in 1983.  The participant worked as a FedEx delivery driver for 26 years while the plaintiff stayed home to care for the couple’s two children.  The participant was diagnosed with cancer and learned on June 3, 2013, that her condition was terminal.  Already registered as domestic partners in California, the couple held a bedside wedding ceremony June 19, 2013, and the participant died the following day.

Six days later, the Supreme Court held in Windsor that the U.S. Constitution requires federal law to recognize state-sanctioned same-sex marriages.  The Court overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which defined marriage under federal law to exclude same-sex couples.  The same day, the Court decided Hollingsworth v. Perry, a procedural ruling that effectively reinstated same-sex marriage in California.  The plaintiff obtained a marriage certificate and a judicial order declaring the couple’s marriage legally valid as of June 19, 2013.
Continue Reading Lawsuit by Surviving Same-Sex Spouse Raises Windsor Retroactivity Question

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in M&G Polymers USA v. Tackett, addressing the question whether a collective bargaining agreement is presumed to provide vested retiree medical benefits.  Unlike pension benefits, welfare benefits, such as retiree medical coverage, are not subject to statutory vesting rules under ERISA.  Accordingly, whether an employer may reduce or eliminate retiree medical coverage depends on the promises the employer has made.  These promises are typically analyzed under ordinary contract principles.  However, a seminal 1986 decision in the Sixth Circuit, International Union, United Auto, Aerospace, & Agricultural Implement Workers of America v. Yard-Man, established an inference—perhaps even a presumption—that retiree medical benefits required by a collective bargaining agreement could never be taken away unless the bargaining agreement expressly provided otherwise.  Last Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Yard-Man and its progeny.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Overturns Inference of Vesting of Bargained Retiree Benefits

Earlier today, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision United States v. Quality Stores.  In that decision, the Sixth Circuit sided with taxpayers and concluded that certain severance payments that qualify as supplemental unemployment benefit payments (or “SUB” payments) for federal income tax purposes are not subject to tax under the

More than a month after the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) in United States v. Windsor, employers are still waiting for the federal government to answer fundamental questions about the rights of same-sex spouses in the post-DOMA world.  In the meantime, however, lower federal courts have begun to come to grips with these questions in decisions interpreting and applying the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.

A significant issue for employers is whether they should determine a couple’s marital status based on the law of the state where the marriage was celebrated, even if the couple now resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  A number of states have “mini-DOMA” statutes declaring that the state will not recognize same-sex marriages, including marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Although the Supreme Court held in Windsor that the federal government cannot refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage that is recognized under state law, the Supreme Court did not address section 2 of DOMA, which provides that a state is not required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in a different state.  As a result, Windsor leaves open the possibility that a same-sex couple’s marriage might be valid in some states and not in others.  A rule that requires plan sponsors to look to a couple’s state of residence rather than to the state of celebration to determine the validity of their marriage would create significant administrative burdens.
Continue Reading Federal Courts Decide Rights of Same-Sex Spouses After DOMA

A federal court of appeals has ruled unanimously that the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act is a valid exercise of Congress’s constitutional power to regulate commerce.  The employer mandate requires employers with more than 50 full-time employees to provide affordable health coverage or pay a penalty.  The plaintiffs argued that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution does not give Congress the power to force employers to purchase health insurance for their employees.
Continue Reading ACA Employer Mandate Survives Constitutional Challenge

Earlier today in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”).  Section 3 of DOMA limits the definition of marriage for purposes of federal law to marriage between individuals of the opposite sex.   The Court held that DOMA deprives same sex couples of due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment.   The Court’s ruling applies to marriages recognized under state law;   the Court did not address whether the Constitution requires states to recognize same sex marriage.

The Court’s opinion notes that DOMA affects over “1,000 statutes and numerous federal regulations.”   Many of the affected statutes and regulations relate to employee benefits.  As a result, the decision is likely to affect the benefits provided under employee benefit plans and the tax treatment those benefits receive.  In some cases, the Court’s decision could have implications for benefits that have already been paid. We encourage employers to review their benefit plans and plan administration to identify changes that might be required or desirable as a result of the ruling.
Continue Reading Supreme Court’s DOMA Decision Has Significant Implications for Employers and Employee Benefit Plans

Last Friday, the government asked the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Quality Stores.  In that decision, the Sixth Circuit sided with taxpayers and concluded that certain severance payments that qualify as supplemental unemployment compensation benefit payments (or “SUB” payments) for federal income tax purposes are not subject to