Facing the possibility of having to pay twice the benefits available under an Employee Retirement Income Security Act-regulated pension plan, Marathon Oil Corp. turned to Haynes and Boone's labor and employment practice group for help.
Dallas partner Melissa Goodman defended Eileen Campbell, Marathon's plan administrator, in Herring and Herring v. Campbell. Two stepsons of a deceased participant in the plan filed the suit in 2009 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
According to the original complaint in Campbell, former Marathon employee John Wayne Hunter died in 2005 without a designated beneficiary. Stepsons Stephen and Michael Herring claimed that, pursuant to Texas case law, they are Hunter's equitably adopted children. Campbell determined that the stepsons were not entitled to benefits under the plan because they were not Hunter's children by blood or by adoption. She distributed the benefits to Hunter's siblings.
After a bench trial in 2010, the district court found that Campbell abused her discretion by refusing to consider the stepsons' claims and that ERISA does not pre-empt Texas law regarding equitable adoption. The court further found that the stepsons are entitled to more than $310,000 plus interest.
While Marathon could have been forced to pay the benefits twice, Goodman says the bigger issue was the plan administrator's discretion to make decisions about eligibility for benefits under the plan.
"It had to be protected," she says.
Represented by Goodman, Campbell appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court's judgment in August 2012, finding that the plan gives the administrator discretionary authority to determine who is eligible for benefits and to construe terms of the plan. The 5th Circuit also noted that the equitable adoption clause in Texas law does not create a legal parent-child relationship.
Gilmer solo Joe Newsom Jr., the Herrings' attorney at trial and on appeal, says Goodman adamantly opposed his position but "I found her very professional."
ERISA-related matters are not the only type of litigation Haynes and Boone's labor and employment practice group handles. Houston partner Matt Deffebach, the group's chairman, says the group also focuses on matters related to wage and hour disputes, traditional labor issues, unfair competition or trade secrets, immigration, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, whistle-blower cases, and leave or Americans With Disabilities Act accommodations.
Deffebach represented a health care provider in Ihegword v. Harris County Hospital District. He says the case began as a wage and hour class action that could have cost the district millions of dollars in back pay to nurses in its health care facilities.
"There was a pretty significant amount of exposure to the district if the class was certified," he says. However, the class was never certified.
Ihegword, a Nigerian nurse, also made a number of other allegations in her original complaint, including that she was forced to work overtime without pay and that the hospital district discriminated against her because of her national origin when it discharged her in 2009. Ihegword alleged that her immediate supervisor made comments that she distrusted Nigerian nurses and would "do everything in her power" to get rid of them. The supervisor with animus toward Nigerians influenced the supervisor who discharged her, Ihegword alleged.
On March 7, the court granted the district's summary judgment motion, finding that Ihegword's unsubstantiated allegation that "to the best of her memory" she worked 12 hours of overtime each week is insufficient to raise a genuine fact issue when the district kept records of the number of hours she worked. The court also noted that Ihegword failed to present any evidence to show that the supervisor who discharged her was influenced by the supervisor who allegedly made the comments about Nigerians.
A hallmark of Haynes and Boone's labor and employment group is its rapid response to clients. Deffebach says the group has a network to ensure a response within about 30 minutes of a client's call or email.
"If a partner is not around, an associate calls back," Deffebach says.