Our firm and the Adair Law Firm saw our clients enjoy a 2nd Circuit decision in Blackwell, Martinez, Moore et al v. Bakery and Confectionery Union and Industry International Pension Fund Plan. As bakery plant workers in Alabama and California, each client was a contributor to a normal retirement benefit and its related forms such as early retirement. However all also agreed to contribute much more to participate in the Golden 80 pension benefit which paid a much higher benefit than normal retirement. It also paid at an earlier age for most. The plants closed, but our clients had worked enough to qualify for the Golden 80 pension. Each only had to wait until reaching the right age to receive the benefit. However, to save money the pension plan cut out this benefit in 2010 for those who were no longer working and decided to only allow our clients the normal retirement benefit and its related forms. That greatly reduced the benefit amount our clients were counting on. Our clients were now receiving nothing for the extra money paid.
In letters sent to our clients, the plan cited cases explaining it was entitled to cut the Golden 80 benefit. In going through the required claim process, we cited a number of cases showing this action was wrong, and also pointed out that the plan’s cases did not apply to this situation. The cases did not support the plan’s actions. This all fell on deaf ears. We filed suit in Alabama, and with another attorney’s help in California.
Other pension claimants in New York had some of the same problems. They filed suit first as the law in New York did not require them to exhaust claim remedies before suing. Unfairly our clients in Alabama legally had to go through the claim remedy process first which barred them from filing suit first. The defendants fought to move our case to New York along with two other Alabama cases and our California case. The cases were moved even though there was some unfairness in that. Since our Alabama clients were not allowed by law to file suit first, and so they had no choice but to have their case heard in New York.
Nonetheless we fought on in New York. Given the issues were clear we filed motions for an early procedural resolution. The New York district court ruled for our clients and the other pensioners and “held that the anti‐cutback rule in § 204(g) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1054(g), precludes plan amendments that reduce retirement‐type subsidies for Plaintiffs‐Appellees who ceased employment without satisfying the preamendment conditions for the subsidy, but who could later satisfy the conditions without returning to work.”
The Defendants did not like this and appealed. However the 2d Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court. The 2d Circuit noted that “other courts have denied a participant the ability to ‘grow into’ benefits only where he has ceased employment without completing the minimum years of service necessary to become eligible for …” benefits. Here our clients had completed the minimum years of service. Cutting their benefit just because they had not yet reached the right age was unfair. Ironically we had pointed out this unfairness and the lack of legal authority during the claim process and now the 2d Circuit agreed. After two trips to New York and hundreds of hours of litigation work, this is a good result. Our firm along with Brett Adair proudly represented our clients. Other attorneys representing other pensioners included Tom Sinclair, Clay Williams, Dee Miles, William Frumkin and a number of lawyers from Keller Rohrbach, LLP. Representing the pension fund and other defendants were the law firms of Bredhoff & Kaiser PLLC and Littler Mendelson PC.