Estate of Barton v. ADT Security Svcs. Pension Plan, — F.3d. –, 2016 WL 1612755 (9th Cir. Apr. 21, 2016), involved a plaintiff who worked for about 20 years (with a couple of interruptions) for ADT and affiliated entities. His employers went through several mergers and acquisitions during the period, and some (but perhaps not all) of them participated in the pension plan at issue.
Mr. Barton submitted a claim, but the plan Administrator concluded he could not establish sufficient employment with participating employers to generate a vested benefit. In particular, though plaintiff submitted W-2 statements, pay stubs and the like, the Administrator found that the records did not show continuous employment with a participating employer, or official confirmation of his participation in the plan.
The district court found that the Administrator had acted within its discretion, but the 9th Circuit reversed, 2-1, holding that “because the district court incorrectly placed the burden of proof on Barton for matters within defendants’ control, we remand to the district court in light of this opinion. We express no view on Barton’s eligibility for pension benefits.”
The court explained that, though a claimant bears the burden of proving entitlement to ERISA benefits, this burden must shift where “the defending entity solely controls the information that determines entitlement, leaving the claimant with no meaningful way to meet his burden of proof[.]” In this case, the court found, the defendants were in a much better position to ascertain which entities plaintiff worked for, when, and whether those entities participated in the plan: “It is illogical and unfair for us to require Barton to close this gap, and the dissent points to nothing in ERISA that supports such a Kafkaesque regime where corporate restructuring can license a plan administrator to throw up his hands and say ‘not my problem.’”
The court made the same ruling regarding the number of hours plaintiff worked in prior years, finding it implausible to believe that an employee would have detailed records of hours worked decades in the past.
Plainly, this type of situation is unlikely to arise in the life, health or disability context. But, as the dissent notes, it is troubling that the majority simply made up new rules when unsatisfied with the result mandated by the existing ones.