Court Upholds Cash Balance Plan Designs

In a continuing trend of federal court rulings backing cash balance plans, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled the plans do not discriminate against older workers in favor of their younger counterparts.

The 9th Circuit issued the latest ruling in a case involving Southern California Gas Company and its SCGC Pension Plan, which employees charged violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by being discriminatory. The 9th Circuit decision upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in favor of the company.

The latest ruling written by Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith becomes the fifth federal appellate court to find that cash balance plans do not discriminate if younger workers end up with higher balances because that is a product of the time value of money. In addition, Smith said cash balance formulas do not reduce an older worker’s accrued benefit because he or she attains a certain age, and cash balance plans do not violate ERISA’s anti-backloading rules.

However, the appeals court reinstated the participants’ claim that the plan sponsor violated ERISA’s notice requirements by not giving them notice of the cash balance plan’s “wear-away effect.”

The case is Hurlic v. Southern California Gas Co., 9th Cir., No. 06-55599, 8/20/08.

Previously upholding cash balance plan designs were the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals (see Federal Appellate Panel Clears Two More Cash Balance Plans), 3rd Circuit (see Cash Balance Proponents Get Two Legal Victories), 6th Circuit (see 6th Circuit Latest to Reject Cash Balance Age Discrimination Claims), and the 7th Circuit (see IBM Cash Balance Discrimination Ruling Reversed).