Contributed by Jonathan Sobel
On January 26, 2015, the Supreme Court released a decision altering the distribution of union retiree healthcare benefits. In M & G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett, the Court, citing ERISA as the controlling law, ruled that ordinary contract principles will be used by courts in determining whether retiree healthcare coverage under a plan for retired workers was meant to be vested for life. This rule invalidated an earlier judicial presumption, known as the Yard-Man presumption, stating that union health benefits would be presumed to be perpetual unless there was specific language stating the contrary in either a plan document or a collective bargaining agreement.
In this case, the employer M & G Polymers had entered into a pension and insurance agreement with the union representing its employees at a plant in West Virginia. In the agreement was a provision stating that the employer would contribute to the healthcare benefits of employees who retired after a certain date and had pension eligibility, with no cost to the employees, for a three-year term. After the agreement had expired, the employer announced that retirees would be required to contribute to the cost of their healthcare. The retirees then filed a lawsuit, alleging that the employer had breached the agreement and violated the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”).
The Court noted that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) governs the rules for interpreting pension plans and welfare benefits plans, as applicable in this case. Under ERISA, a welfare benefits plan must be “established and maintained pursuant to a written instrument,” but “[e]mployers or other plan sponsors are generally free under ERISA, for any reason at any time, to adopt, modify, or terminate welfare plans.” In doing so, the Court essentially has given employers carte blanche discretion to change healthcare coverage for its retired employees as it sees fit.