The United States Supreme Court will be hearing argument in October on a case that Begos Brown & Green successfully litigated in the lower federal courts, and that has significance to any employer with an ERISA plan.
The case is Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life and Accident Ins. Co. Our client is being represented in the Supreme Court by former United States Solicitor General, Seth Waxman.
The case involves a dispute over how long a participant has to sue if he or she disputes a benefit determination made by an employee benefit plan. ERISA does not specify a fixed time for a participant to sue. Many non-lawyers may not realize that it is common for parties to a contract to set their own limitation period to sue for breach of the contract; this often is done in employee benefit plans. The benefit plan at issue in Heimeshoff had such a contractual limitation period.
What is specifically in dispute in Heimeshoff is not the length of the limitation period itself, but when it began to run. Heimeshoff’s benefit plan expressly provided when the period would begin to run, but the plaintiff claimed that ERISA requires that the clock start running on a later date, regardless of what the plan says.
I argued that the limitation provision in the plan is enforceable as written. Both the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed. That means that the clock starts running when the plan says it does. The plaintiff was not happy with those decisions so he asked the Supreme Court to take the case, and the Court agreed.
The Supreme Court hears only a small percentage of the cases that parties ask it to consider. One of the reasons it might decide to take a case is to resolve a disagreement among the different United States Courts of Appeal (the country is divided into twelve “circuits”). In this case, though most of the Circuits that have considered the issue are in agreement with the Second Circuit, one Circuit has disagreed. We assume the Supreme Court will resolve that disagreement. This should be an interesting case with far-reaching implications for those with ERISA plans. The case will be argued on October 15. The parties and various “friends of the court” have been briefing the issues for the last several months.