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Robert Eccles is no pushover, his peers say, but his almost bashful manner belies his reputation as a top ERISA litigator. “He has the demeanor of a career prosecutor,” says Jones Day partner Glen Nager. “But don’t underestimate him.” Eccles, a 56-year-old O’Melveny & Myers partner, got his start as a government attorney, taking a job as a trial lawyer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division after his 1972 graduation from Harvard Law School. He spent five years there, and moved on to the Labor Department in 1977, where he was an associate solicitor heading up Employee Retirement Income Security Act litigation. Colleagues questioned his move from Justice to Labor, Eccles says, but he was intrigued by the emerging legal issues surrounding labor law, and it was a time of disarray in pension plans and benefit funds. “There was outright corruption in some of the major pension plans,” he says. “It was almost a white collar crime practice.” Indeed, some of Eccles’ cases at the Labor Department were precedent-setting. For example, in 1981 Eccles handled Donovan v. Bierwirth, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held that pension plan managers can’t use employee pension plans to fend off takeover attempts. Eccles’ foresight served him well when he was ready to leave government service and was offered the opportunity to build O’Melveny’s ERISA practice in the firm’s D.C. office in 1988. “When I came, nobody thought of ERISA as a litigation specialty,” Eccles says. The 1974 law protects worker pension plans. But that was 16 years ago. Eccles has since built a substantial practice representing benefit plan trustees and insurance companies. For example, he scored a victory in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in February on behalf of U.S. Trust in Keach v. U.S. Trust, et al. Two former employees of Illinois-based catalog company Foster & Gallagher sued U.S. Trust, the trustee of their employee stock ownership plan, after the company went out of business and their stock became worthless. Eccles successfully argued that the trustee did not commit a breach of fiduciary duty in its handling of the plan. Last April, Eccles argued his first Supreme Court case, Kentucky Association of Health Plans v. Miller. He lost when the Court upheld the states’ regulation of HMO provider networks, saying ERISA does not pre-empt state law in such cases. The Court heard arguments in an ERISA pre-emption case, Cigna Healthcare of Texas v. Calad, on March 23 involving one of Eccles’ clients, though he did not argue the case, which aims to resolve the long-standing question of patients’ rights to sue their HMOs under state law. Kathleen Pellegrino, vice president and associate general counsel of Louisville, Ky.-based health-benefit company Humana Inc., describes Eccles as brilliant but unassuming, an unusual trait in a litigator. “He’s completely devoid of arrogance,” she says. Eccles can take complicated issues and “distill” them, says Pellegrino. “He is one of the few lawyers that I know who can take a mysterious statute like ERISA and make it seem almost logical.”

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