ERISA-Fourth Circuit Rules That Plaintiffs' Suit Under ERISA Is Time Barred, Since The Plaintiffs Knew Of The ERISA Issue More Than Three Years Before They Filed Suit

In Bond v. Marriott International, Inc., Nos. 15-1160, 15-1199 (4th Cir. 2016) (Unpublished Opinion), Dennis Bond and Michael Steigman (the “Plaintiffs”), filed this action against their former employer, Marriott International, Inc., alleging that Marriott’s Deferred Stock Incentive Plan (the “Plan”), a tax-deferred Retirement Award program, violates the vesting requirements of ERISA. After targeted discovery on the statute of limitations, the district court found that the claims were timely and granted summary judgment to the Plaintiffs on that issue. Marriot appeals. Upon reviewing the case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) concluded that the Plaintiff’s claims were time barred, and granted judgment to Marriot.

In reaching this decision, the Court said that, except for breach of fiduciary duty claims, ERISA contains no specific statute of limitations, and we therefore look to state law to find the most analogous limitations period. Here, Maryland’s three year statute of limitations for contract actions applies. However, while we apply this three-year state limitations period, the question of when the statute begins to run is a matter of federal law. In most cases an ERISA cause of action does not accrue until a claim of benefits has been made and formally denied.

However, the Court continued, while the “formal denial” rule is generally applied in ERISA cases, we recognized that in limited circumstances the rule is impractical to use, such as cases-like the present one- which do not involve an internal review process and a formal claim denial. In such cases, the Court will look at the time at which some other event, other than a denial of a claim, should have alerted the plaintiff to his entitlement to the benefits he did not receive. Under this approach, a formal denial is not required if there has already been a repudiation of the benefits by the fiduciary which was clear and made known to the beneficiary.

Applying this alternative approach here, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs’ claims are untimely. A 1978 Prospectus–in a section entitled “ERISA”–plainly stated that the Retirement Awards offered by the Plan did not need to comply with ERISA’s vesting requirements. The Prospectus explained that inasmuch as the Plan is unfunded and is maintained by the Company primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a selected group of management or highly compensated employees, the Plan was a top hat plan exempt from the participation and vesting, funding and fiduciary responsibility provisions of ERISA. (J.A. 298). This language clearly informed plan participants that the Retirement Awards were not subject to ERISA’s vesting requirements, the very claim made by the Plaintiffs here. This Prospectus was distributed in 1980, 1986, and 1991, well more than three years before the Plaintiffs filed this suit. Thus the suit is time-barred.