What Types Of Compensation Claims Are Subject To ERISA?

ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, covers many types of compensation claims such as pensions, severance and bonus plans. To understand the finer points of each, we asked Ron Dean, a California attorney who has been engaged in employee benefits litigation primarily on behalf of participants for over 30 years. Here’s what he told us:

  • Pension. Pension claims are critical. After all, they represent a primary income source for the rest of your life. ERISA’s provisions relate almost entirely to pension plans and include complex rules about participation, vesting and “benefit accrual.” Much of this requires experts, such as actuaries, to figure out. It is important to make sure that your benefit has been properly calculated. If the plan is telling you you’re not entitled to any pension, or only a partial pension, it’s time to call a lawyer.

    As with other benefit claims, if you’ve been denied all or part of your benefit, you have to get the “relevant documents,” timely appeal the decision and make sure you address all the reasons for the denial.

  • Other pension plans. Recently, there have been a number of cases involving things called “cash balance plans” which are really complicated. Of course, 401(k) plans, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP’s), employer sponsored IRA’s, defined contribution plans, and a variety of others, fill out the zoo-like variety of pension plans.
  • Severance. Severance Plans present a whole new set of problems. They can be amended at any time, for pretty much any reason. The kinds of conditions and limitations they can put in those things can make a lawyer blush. Just trying to find your way through the language can give you a big headache.
  • Bonus. Bonus Plans are rarely ERISA plans, but there are exceptions. Also, the IRS likes to get involved to see when those bonus payments should be taxed. It’s never easy.
  • Top Hat. Top Hat Plans, plans for higher level executives, are subject to some, but not all of ERISA’s provisions, but can provide substantial income for those allowed to participate in them.

Overcoming pitfalls in the claims process

The ERISA claim process can be difficult – especially when pensions are involved. However, Dean says that while sometimes difficult, the process is not impossible. He provided this advice, “As with other claims, the biggest problem is making sure not only that you exhaust your administrative remedies in a timely and complete way, but also to make sure you seek the right help in doing that. Because these plans are more technical than other kinds of plans, and because they involve substantial sums, it’s important to at least consult with an attorney or other experts before presenting your best case.”

If you’ve been denied valid benefits that are subject to ERISA, contact an attorney whose practice focuses in this area of the law. Consultations are free, without obligation and are strictly confidential. To contact a qualified attorney to discuss your situation, please click here.