Pension & Benefits News Court rebuffs plea from participant's widow for equitable tolling of limitations period
Monday, July 22, 2019

Court rebuffs plea from participant's widow for equitable tolling of limitations period

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

The benefits denial claims of a pension plan participant's widow, who argued that her late husband had forged her name on a spousal election notice, was barred by the applicable statute of limitations, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (CA-6) has ruled. The widow was not entitled to an equitable tolling of the statute of limitations period--the record showed that the widow delayed pursuing her appeal for over six years after the fund's initial denial of benefits, which was accompanied by a request for supplemental information.

A pension plan retiree died in 2009. The fund informed his widow that monthly pension benefits would be discontinued because a notarized “Election Notice Joint and 50% Surviving Spouse Option” completed in 2002 indicated that the surviving spouse option had been declined. As a result, the husband received additional benefits during his lifetime, but benefits terminated at his death.

The widow appealed the benefits termination to the Fund's benefit claim appeals committee. She asserted that her signature on the election notice had been forged. She submitted a “Forensic Handwriting Report” from a certified document examiner, who concluded that both signatures on the election notice matched the husband's handwriting.

In May 2010 the benefits committee denied the appeal, saying the expert's report was insufficient for the committee to conclude that forgery had occurred. However, the committee gave the widow the option to appeal further by submitting additional documentation of her forgery claim, including “a complete set of signature examples” from 2002. In November 2010 the widow's attorney told the fund there would be an appeal, but submitted no additional information or documentation. The fund responded in December 2010, asking again for the additional information.

After December 2010, the Fund heard little from the widow until August and October 2016, when a different attorney contacted the fund, once again arguing that the Handwriting Report was sufficient on its own to prove that the wife did not sign the election notice. In December 2016 the fund again denied the appeal, determining the widow had failed to prove the signature was forged.

In April 2017 the widow filed suit for wrongful denial of benefits under ERISA Sec. 502. The district court concluded that the suit was barred by Tennessee's six-year statute of limitations for contract actions and rejected the widow's plea for equitable tolling of the limitations statute.

The appellate court affirmed the district court's refusal to invoke equitable tolling. It rejected the widow's claim that she had diligently pursued her rights but the Fund had caused the delay by demanding more information. Nothing in the record, the court explained, supported the contention that the Fund caused the delay of more than six years. To the contrary, the fund responded promptly to every communication from the widow. It also suggested to the widow the type of information she should provide that would most effectively help her prove her claim.

The court also rejected the widow's contention that the fund had “waived” a statute-of-limitations defense when it did not raise the issue in its December 2016 denial letter. The court explained that no lawsuit had been filed when the Fund issued the denial letter. The court suggested the widow had confused the deadlines for filing a lawsuit with deadlines for her to file additional documentation during her administrative appeal.

SOURCE: Ensley v. Whobrey (CA-6).

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