Lawsuit Claims Domestic Partners Not Informed of Pension Benefit Rights

A federal court judge has denied a motion to dismiss, allowing the case to move forward.

A federal district court has moved forward a case alleging a pension plan participant was not fully informed of his rights to a joint and survivor annuity upon retirement, in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

David R. Reed filed the lawsuit, claiming that as a domestic partner of the pension plan participant, the pension benefits should have been paid as a joint and survivor annuity. Reed and the participant were registered as domestic partners in California in 2004 and were married in 2014.

Donald Lee Gardner retired from KRON-TV in 2009, and he and Reed met with human resources to discuss benefit options. According to the opinion written by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the plan allowed that a participant who is married at retirement or benefit commencement must be paid his monthly pension benefit in the form of a 50% joint-and-survivor annuity unless he elects otherwise after written notice of his right to the joint-and-survivor annuity and with the witness or notarized written consent of his spouse. Reed claims that during the talk with HR, the availability of a joint and survivor annuity was never mentioned, and Gardner selected a single-life annuity.

Reed argues that California law at the time granted domestic partners the same rights as spouses and since he did not consent to Gardner’s election, it was invalid. Gardner died in June 2014 and all benefit payments stopped.

Reed asks for declarations that the defendants are estopped from denying him a survivor benefit under the plan and that they are estopped from reducing his survivor benefit by “any overpayment occasioned by the payment of a single-life annuity during Mr. Gardner’s life.”  In addition, he asks the court to reform the plan “to provide that the provisions applicable to married participants apply to participants in registered domestic partnerships,” and to assess a surcharge “in the amount necessary to place him in the position he would have occupied but for the defendants’ breach of fiduciary duty, including in the amount of the survivor benefit and any claimed overpayment.

KRON-TV moves to dismiss the third claim for relief on the ground that the relief Reed seeks is duplicative of his first claim for benefits. White noted that in CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, the Supreme Court held that Section 1132(a)(3) of ERISA permits equitable relief, in a variety of forms, even where a plaintiff seeks relief under Section 1132(a)(1)(B). The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has confirmed that a plaintiff may pursue claims under both Sections 1132(a)(1) and 1132(a)(3), “so long as there is no double recovery.”

White concluded that at this early stage in the litigation, the court cannot determine if the third claim simply “repackages” Reed’s first claim for relief. He denied the motion to dismiss.