In 2016, the top 10 class-action settlements in lawsuits brought under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act totaled $807.4 million, according to the 13th edition of the Workplace Class Action Report, published by the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP.
That was down from the previous two years, when the top 10 settlements totaled $926.5 million in 2015, and $1.31 billion in 2014.
The largest settlements in 2016 were dominated by so-called church plan cases, which question whether or not pension plans sponsored by religiously affiliated hospital conglomerates are exempted from ERISA’s fiduciary requirements.
In Griffith, et al. v. Providence Health & Services, the proposed settlement, if approved by the court, would award plaintiffs $353 million, the largest in a class action brought under ERISA in 2016. The plaintiffs challenged the health care system’s church plan status.
Congress wrote the exemption to protect the privacy and constitutional rights of religious organizations.
Last December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the consolidated appeal of three hospital systems. Over the past two years, a circuit split has emerged in the appellate courts as to whether large hospital systems originally founded by religious orders, but run independently of churches, still qualify for the exemption under ERISA.
The Supreme Court will hear one hour of arguments in Dignity Health, et al v. Rollins, Saint Peter’s Healthcare System, et al. v. Kaplan, and Advocate Health Care Network, et al. v. Stapleton. The hearing has yet to be scheduled, but a ruling is expected by June 2017.
Here is a list of the top five settlements in 2016:
5. Kruger et al. v. Novant Health, Inc.
Proposed settlement: $32 million
In a suit originally filed in 2014, six named plaintiffs alleged they were charged excessive fees in Novant’s 401(k) plan. Former and current participants who were enrolled in Novant plans between 1998 and 2015 were affected. There were more than 70,000 members in the case.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys were reportedly entitled to $10.6 million, or roughly one-third of the settlement money.
4. Lann et al. v. Trinity Health Corp.
Proposed settlement: $76 million
The settlement was reached for two class actions challenging the church plan status of hospitals operated by Trinity Health.
In Lann v. Trinity, a pension plan sponsored by Trinity was alleged to be underfunded by $600 million, and the pension plan of Catholic Health East, which was acquired by Trinity, underfunded by $438 million.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees were capped at $8 million, according to the settlement.
3. Kemp-DeLisser et al. v. St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center
Proposed settlement: $107 million
The plaintiff alleged the pension plan of Hartford-based St. Francis was underfunded by $140 million and that the Catholic-run hospital did not qualify for church plan status.
The settlement was reached less than a year after the initial claim was filed. It was the largest settlement among church-plan cases at the time, a distinction that would last for only several months.
2. Jones et al. v. Singing River Health Services Foundation
Proposed settlement: $156 million
Mississippi-based Singing River Health Services would pay $149.5 million to its pension plan over 35 years, according to a consolidated settlement of several claims.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys would be awarded $6.5 million in fees and expenses.
1. Griffith et al. v. Providence Health & Services
Proposed settlement: $353 million
If approved by the court, Providence Health & Services, based in Washington State, would contribute $350 million to its defined benefit plan. The remainder would be paid to former plan participants. Plaintiffs’ attorneys would be awarded $6.5 million in fees and expenses.