Thursday, June 30, 2016
Donna Van Loo was a dutiful employee who worked hard as a corporate attorney for Church’s Chicken. But following her death from esophageal cancer after years of paying increasingly larger premiums on a group life policy, Church’s and its insurer, Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, denied her parents’ claim to the proceeds, stating that Ms. Van Loo (who was unmarried and had no children) did not submit a required form – a document that Church’s was negligent in failing to provide.
On June 29, 2016, Judge Laurie J. Michelson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan did what federal courts almost never do. Judge Michelson granted the plaintiffs’ pre-trial motion for summary judgment, finding that Church’s breached its fiduciary duty in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). See Donald and Harriett Van Loo v. Cajun Operating Company d/b/a Church’s Chicken et al. (Case No. 14-cv-10604).
“As the plan administrator for the group life policy, Church’s had a responsibility to notify Ms. Van Loo of any issues regarding her eligibility,” said Daniel D. Swanson, a senior shareholder at Sommers Schwartz, P.C. who represents plaintiffs Donald and Harriett Van Loo, Donna Van Loo’s parents and the designated beneficiaries of her supplemental life insurance policy. “Instead of doing the right thing after discovering their mistake, Church’s dragged her parents, who are both in their 80s, through three years of needless litigation. We are pleased with the court’s ruling.”
Donna Van Loo began working full-time for Church’s Chicken in May 2007, at which time she became eligible for supplemental life insurance coverage that would have paid a multiple of her earnings. In June 2007, she opted for benefits equaling two times her salary, then $100,000 per year, and deductions for the premium were then taken from her paycheck.
In November 2007, Ms. Van Loo submitted a change form to increase coverage to three times her salary. The form stated that she “may be required to submit an evidence of insurability form. If so, one will be mailed to you.” No EIF form was mailed to her. Three years later, she submitted another enrollment change form to increase her supplemental life coverage to four times her annual salary, a multiplier that remained in place as her salary surpassed $120,000 by 2013.
Church’s regularly deducted premium payments from her paycheck, and later, when Ms. Van Loo took a disability leave, she paid the premiums directly and without interruption. After her death on March 4, 2013, the plaintiffs submitted a claim but were informed that it was partially denied because Ms. Van Loo never completed the EIF form. Rather than the full insurance benefit payout of $614,000, only $300,000 was paid to the plaintiffs.
Discovery revealed that while Ms. Van Loo paid – and Church’s accepted – all premiums for the increased coverage for more than five years, Church’s as the plan administrator never mailed the requisite EIF document to her. The court determined that Church’s communications with Ms. Van Loo throughout her employment constituted material misrepresentations regarding her coverage and a breach of fiduciary duty.
The odds of a plaintiff prevailing on a motion for summary judgment, in general, are slim due to the sizable burden that federal law imposes. As stated in Judge Michelson’s opinion, “[b]ecause they seek summary judgment on a claim for which they have the burden of persuasion at trial, their showing ‘must be sufficient for the court to hold that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for [them].” Further, the chances of a plaintiff obtaining a grant of summary judgment in an ERISA case are even smaller. Finally, plaintiffs are requesting that the Judge direct Church’s to reimburse them for their attorney fees and costs.
“We are hopeful that this matter will end here,” added Sommers Schwartz shareholder Tad T. Roumayah. “Mr. and Mrs. Van Loo have endured more grief than any parents should have to suffer, and three years in the courtroom has only added to their pain.”