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Posts Tagged ‘Third Circuit’

The Third Circuit Upholds District Court Ruling That Trucking Company Employees Not Entitled to 1 Million in UIM Benefits

Posted on: May 22nd, 2019

By: Erin Lamb

In Farmland Mutual Insurance v. Sechrist, the Third Circuit upheld a district court’s decision rejecting the claims of employees involved in a serious accident while driving a vehicle for Clouse Trucking that they were entitled to $1,000,000 in underinsured (UIM) benefits instead of the $35,000 paid to them by Farmland Mutual Insurance Co.

Farmland had determined that Clouse Trucking had selected to waive UIM coverage equal to the bodily injury liability coverage ($1,000,000), and selected UIM coverage of $35,000. The employees had argued that Clouse Trucking’s waiver was invalid and unenforceable as it was contrary to what is required by the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (PMVFL).

Farmland proceeded with a declaratory judgment action in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeking determination of its obligations under that law, related to the UIM coverage. The district court granted summary judgment, adopting the argument that the policy application was a valid written request by Clouse Trucking for lower UIM coverage, as allowed under the (PMVFL). The employees appealed to the Third Circuit claiming the purported selection of the lowered UIM coverage was not a valid written request under the PMVFL. They argued that the requirements had not been met because the selection form contained a box that listed the UIM limit offered as $35,000 when it should have read $1,000,000.

Notably, in the application for the Farmland policy, the owner of Clouse Trucking checked a box that stated, “I want Underinsured Motor Coverage with limits lower than my bodily injury liability limits, as indicated below…” However, a sticky note obscured several of the boxes that were options for the amounts he could select. There was a handwritten note that stated near the selection, “35,000”. The Important Policyholder Notice, signed by Clouse, indicated that he understood that Farmland provided such coverage up to at least $100,000.

The Third Circuit found that, while the PMVFL required specific written waivers with statutorily-provided forms if an insured declined uninsured or UIM benefits entirely, that was not the case for simply selecting an amount less than the bodily liability coverage. In such a case, the election could take any form, so long as the request was signed by the insured, and contained a designation of the amount of coverage selected. Those requirements were met. The court found no significance in the fact that the Underinsured Motorist Coverage Limit Offered portion of the Selection form had stated that amount as $35,000 when it should have read $1,000,000.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Erin Lamb at [email protected].

ERISA Plaintiffs Continue Their Assault on Major Universities, but Every ERISA Fiduciary is Vulnerable

Posted on: May 15th, 2019

By: John H. Goselin II

Beginning in August 2016, the ERISA Plaintiffs’ Bar launched a concerted attack on more than 20 major universities across the country filing class action lawsuits for alleged violations of ERISA fiduciary duties under ERISA Section 404 and alleged participation in ERISA prohibited transactions under Section 406.

Each side has won significant victories. Duke University, the University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University have capitulated and are paying six and seven-figure class action settlements. The University of Rochester and Long Island University fought until the plaintiffs simply walked away earlier this year. Northwestern University, New York University, Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania won impressive victories at the motion to dismiss stage.

But the battle is never over at the district court level. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has provided new life to the plaintiffs bringing suit against the University of Pennsylvania, albeit only for 2 of the 7 counts that were originally alleged. Sweda v University of Pennsylvania, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 13284 (No. 17-3244, May 2, 2019). Not only does this reversal present new risks for the University of Pennsylvania, but it may put a damper on lower courts willing to dismiss these class action lawsuits.

The Third Circuit rejected a per se rule that would protect plan fiduciaries who provide a “mix and range of investment options” to plan participants. Instead, the Third Circuit held that Plaintiff Sweda had plausibly alleged that the defendants had “failed to conform to the high standard required of plan fiduciaries [under ERISA Section 404(a)(1)]” by alleging that (i) the recordkeeping fees were 6-7 times greater than the fees paid by similar plans, (ii) defendants failed to solicit competitive bids for recordkeeping and other plan services or (iii) defendants failed to hire an independent consultant to assess the plan’s administrative costs. Furthermore, the University of Pennsylvania Plan maintained high-cost investment options with historically poor performance compared to available alternatives, particularly the ongoing use of retail mutual fund shares when lower-cost institutional shares were available, but never adopted by the plan.

It is important to note that the claims being asserted against the universities apply to every business that maintains a 401(k) plan, or other ERISA investment plan, for their employees. The employer as a plan sponsor and the named and functional fiduciaries administering the plan will be held to the “prudent man” standard of care which requires all plan fiduciaries to exercise “the skill, care, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.”

In short, the structure and administration of an ERISA plan must be continually reviewed, evaluated and modified to reflect the prevailing better/best practices. Plan sponsors and individual fiduciaries should develop a process of continuing and ongoing education regarding (i) what is expected of ERISA fiduciaries and (ii) the available options in the market place. Furthermore, plan fiduciaries must have a documented process pursuant to which they periodically evaluate the ERISA plan(s) for which they are responsible and make changes when necessary and appropriate.

Once the ERISA Plaintiffs’ Bar is done with the universities, they will be looking for their next targets.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact John Goselin at [email protected].

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But . . . You Get What You Need”: Determining What is “Necessary” Under the Fair Housing Act

Posted on: December 12th, 2018

By: Jake Loken & Bill Buechner

In a case citing The Rolling Stones, Henry Thoreau, and Abraham Lincoln, and listing the ingredients needed to make lemonade, the Third Circuit rejected an elderly woman’s disability discrimination claim under the Fair Housing Act.

In Vorchheimer v. Philadelphian Owners Association, 903 F.3d 100 (3d Cir. 2018), Carol Vorchheimer, an elderly woman, wanted to leave her rolling walker in her condo building’s lobby. Vorchheimer needed the walker to get around her condo and the building, but did not need it when going from the lobby to her car. Vorchheimer wanted to leave the walker in the lobby when she left to go to her car, but was provided four alternatives by the property manager for storing her walker instead of leaving the walker out in the lobby. The alternatives, however, did not satisfy Vorchheimer’s desire to simply leave the walker in the lobby.

After a year of continually leaving the walker in the lobby, without using any of the alternative options, and having staff move the walker into storage, Vorchheimer filed a lawsuit against the owner’s association, the association’s president at the time, and the property manager. The lawsuit alleged the defendants violated the Fair Housing Act, specifically, 42 U.S.C. 3604(f)(3)(B), by discriminating against Vorchheimer in refusing to allow her to leave the walker out in the lobby. Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP attorney Christopher Curci argued on behalf of the defendants at oral argument before the Third Circuit.

The Court examined section 3605(f)(3)(B), which states: “Discrimination includes [1] a refusal to make [2] reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, [3] when such accommodations may be [a] necessary to afford such person [b] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling[.]” 903 F.3d at 105. The Court focused in on what is meant by “necessary” in this section.

Typically, a suit alleging discrimination under this section focuses on the “reasonable accommodation” factor. In Vorchheimer, the court focused on the “necessary” factor, and held that what is “necessary” is a question of law to be determined by the court, along with holding the “necessity element requires that an accommodation be essential, not just preferable.” 903 F.3d at 107. The Court further held that a particular tenant’s needs must first be identified, then after doing so, a court “can gauge what is necessary to afford that tenant equal hosing opportunity.” Id. at 108.

In determining what a tenant’s needs are, the Court thoroughly discussed what the word “necessary” means, and then examined doctors’ letters detailing Vorchheimer’s disabilities and medical needs, which were exhibits to her complaint. The Court determined that Vorchheimer’s needs were “use of a rolling walker” and minimal “period[s] of unsupported standing.”

Next, the Court turned to whether the alternatives proposed by the property manager satisfied these needs. The Court found that leaving the walker out in the lobby was Vorchheimer’s want, and not a need, and that the four alternatives posed by the manager satisfied Vorchheimer’s needs of minimal unsupported standing and use of the walker when moving around the building.

For HOAs, this holding means that if a HOA offers reasonable alternatives that meet a tenant’s needs, even though they may not be the tenant’s preferred accommodations, then the existence of these alternatives will make the tenant’s preferred accommodation not “necessary.” The Sixth, Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have all likewise held that a plaintiff is not entitled to his or her preferred accommodation if it is not essential to having equal housing opportunities.

After Vorchheimer, the Third Circuit makes it clear that the term “necessary” as used in the Fair Housing Act does not include wants, and helps make The Rolling Stones lyrics ring truer than ever, as “[y]ou can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find, you get what you need.”

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jake Loken at [email protected] or Bill Buechner at [email protected].

Discrimination Suit Over Service Dog Revived By Third Circuit

Posted on: August 23rd, 2018

By: Barry Brownstein

The Third Circuit has revived a lawsuit by the parents of an epileptic girl who claim a Pennsylvania school discriminated against her by barring her service dog.

In 2014, Traci and Joseph Berardelli sued the Allied Services Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, which operates a school with a specialized program for dyslexic students, after it barred their daughter from bringing her service dog to school to help alert staff to her epileptic seizures. The school claimed the dog would be a distraction, and the Berardelli’s daughter missed many school days when her seizures were bad. When the school finally permitted the service dog to accompany her, the reprieve did not last long, as school officials required that it wear a “special therapeutic shirt designed to decrease allergens” that caused the dog to overheat. The parents’ lawsuit alleged that the school violated the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and a Pennsylvania discrimination law.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed the ADA and state discrimination claims, ruling that they improperly sought damages.

On appeal, Traci and Joseph Berardelli argued that “reasonable modifications” required under the ADA are substantively the same as “reasonable accommodations” provided for in the Rehabilitation Act, and thus, service animal requirements in the ADA apply to both laws.

The Third Circuit ruled that the district court erred in its instructions to the jury about the Rehabilitation Act claim and improperly disallowed testimony about ADA service animal regulations because that was not the law being considered.  In its enforcement of the ADA, the Department of Justice has ruled that service animals are reasonably permitted to be used by disabled persons in public places as long as they are housebroken, not out of control, and pose no risk to the public.

The Third Circuit ruled that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its progeny the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 must be interpreted the same way with respect to reasonable accommodations that must be provided to those with disabilities, including the use of service animals. Thus, under the Rehabilitation Act just as under the ADA, a covered actor ordinarily must accommodate the use of service animals by individuals with disabilities. The Third Circuit also overturned dismissal of the claim made under Pennsylvania discrimination law, ruling that the district court erred because that law does permit damages as a remedy.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Barry Brownstein at [email protected].

Coffee, Water, Less Than 20 Minutes

Posted on: June 19th, 2018

SCOTUS KICKS THE CAN ON SHORT BREAKS COMPENSATION

By: John McAvoy

On June 11, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal of a Pennsylvania employer that could have resolved the emerging split of authority between the federal appellate courts and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as to the compensability of employees’ short rest breaks.

In American Future Systems, Inc. d/b/a Progressive Business Publications v. R. Alexander Acosta, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, the Secretary of Labor filed suit against Progressive Business Publications, a company that publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives, as well as the company’s owner, alleging they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by paying their salespeople an hourly wage and bonuses based on their number of sales per hour while they were logged onto the computer at their workstations, and by not paying them if they were logged off for more than 90 seconds.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania previously found that the employer’s policy had violated the FLSA, relying on a DOL regulation which states that “[r]est periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry.  They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time.  They must be counted as hours worked.”  In so holding, the District Court found that the employer was liable for at least $1.75 million in back wages and damages.

On appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the employer argued that that it provided “flex time” rather than “breaks,” which allowed workers to clock out whenever they wanted, for any reason.  In other words, that the employees were not “working” after they logged off of their computers since they could do anything they wanted, including leaving the office.  The appellate court rejected this argument, reasoning that to dock the pay of employees who can’t manage a bathroom sprint is “absolutely contrary to the FLSA,” and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Third Circuit’s reliance on DOL regulation was contrary to the holdings of some of the other circuit courts which opted to assess the circumstances of the break in lieu of interpreting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule that fails to take into consideration the facts of a particular situation.

The employer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify how compensability for breaks should be determined.  Citing the circuit split, the employer posited that the question of break pay should be determined by assessing the circumstances of the break, rather than adopting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule.  In its reply brief, the DOL fervently defended its regulations and denied the existence of the alleged circuit split, arguing that “hours worked [are] not limited to the time an employee actually performs his or her job duties.”  Unfortunately, this remains an issue for another day as the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and/or resolve the alleged split.

Absent a decision from the Supreme Court to the contrary, employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are bound by the Third Circuit’s decision. As such, employers in these states must continue to comply with DOL regulations with respect to the compensability of short breaks.

Fortunately, the applicable DOL regulations are designed to protect employers’ rights. For starters, the regulations recognize that meal periods serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, as such, are not compensable.  Second, an employer need not count an employee’s unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will be punished.

Although an employer will have to compensate an employee who repeatedly takes unauthorized breaks lasting less than 20 minutes in order to comply with the Third Circuit’s ruling and the applicable DOL regulations, the employer is nevertheless free to discipline the employee for such indiscretions by whatever means the employer deems appropriate, including termination.

Prudent employers should prepare themselves to address such issues through smart planning and proper training of employees, including managers, supervisors and HR personnel to ensure the employer’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with all applicable DOL regulations.

Want to know whether your company’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with DOL regulations? Let me help. Please call or email me (215.789.4919; [email protected]).