Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Not sure what the judge had in mind on this one

In Yates v. UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, the Fourth Circuit in a published opinion by Judge Michael reversed Judge William's decision that the plaintiff was entitled to a service pension from the UMWA 1974 Pension fund.

Eligibility for service pensions is determined by years of classified work with employers who were signatory to collective bargaining agreements with the UMWA. Yates was a truck driver in the mines for over 40 years, and 12 of those years were for a non-signatory subsidiary of Pittston, called Erwin Supply, which had its own union contract and did not participate in the pension fund.

In this pension case, Judge Williams applied liability principles from the Coal Act, which deals with health insurance. The Coal Act was born of the perceived funding crisis for the funds that pay the health insurance claims of the "orphan" pensioners, disabled retirees, and dependents, whose companies were no longer in business. The Act incorporates a variety of creative mechanisms to find companies to pay the health care costs of the beneficiaries, including the retroactive reach back provisions that the Supreme Court held were unconstitutional as applied in Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel. Judge Williams reasoned in his opinion that "[i]f signatory status can be imputed for liability under the Coal Act, then signatory status can be imputed for benefits under the Coal Act."

On appeal, the appeals court reversed, because the plaintiff was not making a claim for benefits under the Coal Act. Unlike the Benefit Funds, the Pension funds required no federal bail-out - the pay-outs from the pension fund are a matter of actuarial calculation, unlike the ever-escalating costs of health insurance. Consequently, the Coal Act was passed solely with respect to health insurance, and its liberal liability provisions have no application to the determination of service with a non-signatory employer can be considered signatory service for purposes of pension benefits.

Evidently, somebody at the Funds thought Yates was entitled to credit for these years of service, as the plaintiff's brief notes that a hearing officer gave Yates full credit and the Funds paid his pension on that basis for some time. Maybe the judge was looking for some kind of application of the W.D. Va.'s own version of the Goose and Gander rule. The problem is that the Funds in this instance are not one monolithic whole.

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