Under ERISA [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which governs most private-sector employee benefit plans], pension plans must be administered in accordance with their terms. Although this rule is well-known by plan administrators, disputes arise when parties disagree about the meaning of the plan's terms. Nonetheless, if the terms of the plan unambiguously favor your pension claim, do what the participant did in Walton v. Pension Plan, No. 2:16-cv-00397, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80440 (W.D. Pa. May 24, 2017): FIGHT BACK.
Pension plans are designed to be long-term such that participants steadily accrue benefits over their period of employment with the plan sponsor and any participating employer. As a result, records of participants' employment history and benefit accruals may span many years. Participants typically do not maintain these records themselves. Rather, these records are maintained (or should be maintained) by the plan administrator. But what are the consequences if the plan administrator fails to maintain such records?
ERISA [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which governs most private sector pension plans] seeks to protect pension plan participants from losing their promised pension benefits. One way ERISA does this is through an "anti-forfeiture rule" that expressly prohibits the forfeiture of a participant's vested pension benefit at normal retirement age. In a recent court decision, this rule was instrumental in netting the pension claimant an additional $109,000 in past due pension benefits plus interest and the right to seek an award of costs and attorneys' fees incurred in prosecuting the claim. Aicher v. IBEW Local Union No. 269 Joint Trust Funds Office, No. 12-1781, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83061 (D. N.J. May 31, 2017). Here are the facts:
Courts interpret pension plans in accordance with their terms and, therefore, will not deviate from them, even when the result seems harsh or unfair. Strang v. Ford Motor Co. General Retirement Plan, No. 16-2090, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 8849 (6th Cir. May 19, 2017) is a recent, albeit sad, example.