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Pension Rights Center Amicus Briefs

The Pension Rights Center lends its support to important cases that could benefit plan participants by filing amicus curiae or friend-of-the-court briefs. Below are some of the amicus briefs filed by the Center.

  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circut in Bafford v. Northrop Grumman Corp. on August 10, 2020. Northrup-Grumman’s defined benefit plan, like all such plans, must provide participants with an estimate of their retirement benefits on request.  Northrup-Grumman, applying an incorrect benefit formula to a group of participants, estimated benefits by more than 100%.  The plan then began paying these benefits.  Years later the plan discovered that it had been using an incorrect formula.  It not only cut participants benefits by more than half, it also began trying to collect the “overpayments” that the plan made.  The plan participants were completely innocent and were unaware that they were receiving incorrect benefit amounts.

The participants sued the Northrup-Grumman, the plan’s administrative committee, and an actuarial firm that used the wrong formula, claiming that the mistake was a misrepresentation and the plan should continue paying the benefits it had told the participants they would receive. 

Northrup-Grumman said it did nothing wrong, the plan administrative committee said it did not do the calculations so was not responsible, and the actuarial firm said it was not a fiduciary and thus could not be sued under federal law and that it could not be sued under state law either, because ERISA preempted state law.  The district court said that the participants had not alleged in their complaint specific facts that showed that any of the defendants did anything wrong other than the actuarial firm making a calculation error, and that calculation errors were not prohibited by the statute.

The participants appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit. The Pension Rights Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief that said that Grumman-Northrup and the plan administrator did not adequately monitor benefit calculations and the actuarial firm was a fiduciary because it designed the method and procedure that produced the calculation errors.      

  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in Intel Corp. Inv. Policy Comm. v. Sulyma on October 28, 2019 asking the Court to agree with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that sending an e-mail to Christopher Sulyma notifying him that information about his retirement savings plans’ investments was available on a website did not give him “actual knowledge” that his money had been mismanaged. Federal law says that lawsuits claiming mismanagement can be brought within six years of the wrongful acts unless there is actual knowledge of the wrongdoing, in which case they must be brought within three years. The Center’s brief pointed out that Sulyma ‎didn't recall seeing fact sheets on the plans’ website that would ‎have told him that his money had been invested in hedge funds and other highly risky investments, and that he wouldn’t have understood the documents if he had seen them. It was only after more than three years and less than six that Sulyma learned that the plans, and his accounts in those plans, had lost large amounts of money. The brief focuses on the language of the law and its history, and notes that “most participants are not financially sophisticated, and no matter how well-educated, lack the financial expertise to evaluate plan investment decisions based simply on plan disclosures.”
  • On September 18, 2019, the Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in Thole v. U.S. Bank, N.A. asking the Supreme Court to reverse a decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled that pension plan participants did not have the right to sue to recover investment loses of at least $748 million.  The circuit court stated that the plan participants lost their ability to sue, including the ability to seek removal of persons responsible for improperly managing the plan or the inappropriate investments that they chose because the pension plan is this case was fully funded.  The law, however, provides that participants have the right to sue to have their plan carefully managed with investments in a diversified portfolio without self-dealing by plan managers.  It should not matter that a plan is sufficiently funded.  As noted in the brief: “The fact that a plan that loses hundreds of millions in assets due to fiduciary mismanagement might not ultimately default on its obligations does not make the increased risk to participants any less real.”  This is because the status of a plan’s ability to pay benefits changes over time for many reasons, including the performance of the plan’s investments.
  • On January 22, 2019, the Pension Rights Center joined the AARP Litigation Foundation in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Divane v. Northwestern Univ. The brief asked the Court to overturn the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern of Illinois that had dismissed the case. Several participants in two nonprofit retirement plan known as 403(b) plans sued the administrator of the plan. They claimed that the plan provided over 200 investment options – too many to allow the plan administrator “to monitor all investment options and to remove poorly performing and unreasonably high fee options when it [was] prudent to do so.”  The U.S. District Court had not allowed the case to go forward to determine whether the plan administrator was at fault because they had not provided sufficient details about the plan administrator’s processes and methods for managing the plans. The brief pointed out that the case has important implications for the protection of retirement savings. “Preventing plan participants from enforcing their rights under ERISA due to a failure to plead facts unattainable to them and solely in the possession of plan fiduciaries, undermines Congress’s intent when it passed ERISA and will hinder the overall enforcement of ERISA, thereby further increasing the risk that individual workers face when entrusting plan administrators with their savings.” 
  • On December 20, 2018, the Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in support of the appellants in Smith v. OSF Healthcare System, et al. The brief argues that the ERISA church plan exemption applies only to plans established and maintained by churches or church pension boards and does not extend to plans established by other church-affiliated nonprofit organizations such as hospitals, schools and social service agencies. The brief contends that the district court erred in ruling that a pension plan's internal employee benefits committee satisfies the statutory requirement that an exempt plan be maintained by a religiously-affiliated "organization, whether a civil law corporation or otherwise." That language was intended to apply only to church pension boards, which are financial institutions established by churches that are usually incorporated but sometimes use other nonprofit structures such as trusts or unincorporated associations.
  • The Pension Rights Center, the Women’s Law Project, and twelve other organizations filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Sveen v. Melin on February 28, 2018. The brief argues that state laws requiring insurance policies and IRAs to automatically take ex-spouses off of accounts when a couple divorces are unconstitutional. ‎The brief also contends that, while such state laws technically apply equally to men and women, women are more vulnerable in retirement because they typically have fewer resources, assets, and savings and that divorce exacerbates this vulnerability.
  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court asking the Court to affirm decisions by three Courts of Appeals that had ruled that only pension plans established by churches are exempt from the requirements of the federal private pension law. On June 5, 2017, in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and ruled that pension plans sponsored by religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations do not have to be "established" by churches in order to be treated as exempt "church plans" if they meet other requirements. The Court’s opinion did not address whether the plans involved in the cases meet these other requirements. For example, future litigation will be necessary to determine whether these plans are "maintained" by the type of organizations envisioned by Congress when it enacted the law.
  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in support of a case asking the Supreme Court to reverse a Court of Appeals ruling that a plan can require participants to sue for denied benefits in a federal court chosen by the plan, despite the fact that federal law gives participants a choice of several venues in which they can sue. The case is Lorna Clause v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, et al. On January 17, 2017, the Supreme Court announced that it would not hear the case.
  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief supporting Verizon employees who are asking the Supreme Court to reverse a Court of Appeals ruling that individuals whose future pensions have been placed at risk by the actions of plan trustees do not have the right to file a lawsuit since they have not yet been harmed by those actions. The case is Pundt v Verizon.
  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the plaintiff (respondent) in Spokeo v. Robins. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for November 2, 2015. (Sept. 4, 2015)
  • The Pension Rights Center filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in Tibble v. Edison. (12/09/2014)  On May 18, 2015, the Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of the plaintiffs.
  • There are currently eleven cases now pending before the federal courts that will determine whether a pension plan established by a religiously-affiliated nonprofit organization, which is not itself a church, is a "church plan" that is exempt from the federal law protecting private sector retirement benefits (ERISA). The results of these lawsuits will determine whether hundreds of thousands of nurses, teachers, social workers, and orderlies will be able to count on getting the pensions they have earned. A church plan litigation chart can be found here. The Pension Rights Center has filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the plaintiffs' positions that their pension plans are not 'church plans' in three of these cases.
  • Read the Center's amicus brief in Rollins v. Dignity Health filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Sept. 14, 2015. 
  • Read the Center's amicus brief in Stapleton v. Advocate Health filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on May 13. (5/13/2015)



  • The PRC supported the plaintiff in LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg & Associates, a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case will determine whether an individual participant in a 401(k) plan can sue to recover losses that did not affect all (or many other) plan participants. Read our summary on the LaRue case. Read our brief supporting the participant's right to sue.  (8/7/2007)

  • The PRC supported the plaintiff in Milofsky v. American Airlines. The case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that a group of plan participants that did not represent all plan participants, could nevertheless sue for breach of fiduciary duty. The participants claimed they were harmed because their pensions were invested in overvalued company stock. Read more about the case. Read our brief supporting the group's right to sue in cases where some but not all plan participants are harmed.  (8/11/2005)

  • The PRC also submitted an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in Hirt v. Equitable Retirement Plan, a cash balance case heard in the Second Circuit. Read our brief encouraging the Second Circuit to reject the Seventh Circuit's holding in Cooper v. IBM and instead find that cash balance plan formulas violate ERISA.  (3/29/2007)