Opinion Date: August 22, 2012
Areas of Law: ERISA, Insurance Law, Labor & Employment Law
Plaintiffs are retired unionized employees of defendant and were covered by collective bargaining agreements that addressed healthcare benefits. The parties contest whether the CBAs guaranteed employees and their spouses lifetime healthcare benefits after retirement. After retiring, the employees and spouses continued to receive healthcare insurance from defendant. Between ages 62 to 65, defendant paid 80% of the premium costs. When the retirees turned 65, defendant assumed 100% of premium costs. In 2006, defendant informed plaintiffs that the company was instituting a new healthcare plan that would no longer cover 100% of the premiums. Plaintiffs claimed violations of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. 185, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. 1132. The district court ruled in plaintiffs’ favor as to employee coverage, but in favor of defendant as to spouses. The Sixth Circuit reversed in part, in favor of plaintiffs. Although healthcare is a “welfare benefit,” not entitled to the same ERISA protection as pension benefits, employers are free to waive their power to alter welfare benefits. Defendant did so by offering vested healthcare coverage to retired employees and spouses, and by agreeing that CBAs could only be modified with signed, mutual consent of the parties.