Federal Rules of Procedure Trump Justice in ERISA Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

At some point in life, a mature person is supposed to stop delighting in other people’s drama, and learn to focus on the important things. Social justice. World peace. Environmental stewardship.

We’re not quite there yet. We love judicial bickering, even when it's a disagreement that litigants project upon two completely civil judges. That’s one of the many reasons why we love the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Today, we have a Fifth Circuit case pitting two district court judges’ opinions against one another. The question: Can one trial judge substitute his findings for a recused trial judge’s findings in the same case?

The plaintiffs in this case brought an enforcement suit against SBC Communications and AT&T under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), alleging that the defendants had improperly altered a pension plan.

The program in question provided discounted telephone services to SBC and AT&T retirees. Under the program, employees who lived within the range of the defendants' services were part of the in-range retiree concession. Since some employees lived outside of that range, the defendants offered non-range employees and retirees reimbursement for phone services purchased from competitors. This alternative arrangement was called the OOR retiree concession.

During the early aughts, the defendants made several modifications to the OOR retiree concession. The plaintiffs sued , claiming the OOR retiree concession was a pension plan under ERISA, and alleging that the modifications violated ERISA's anti-cutback provision.

Judge Justice, (who has the best judicial surname ever), agreed with the plaintiffs and entered an interlocutory order that the OOR was a pension plan during the first phase of a bifurcated trial on the issue. Before he entered final judgment, however, Judge Justice recused himself.

Judge Rodriguez took over the case. Since the case involved a similar benefit plan to one of his other cases, Boos v. AT&T, Judge Rodriguez reconsidered Judge Justice's ruling pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54, explaining that it was necessary to maintain consistency. That's because Judge Rodriguez had previously determined in Boos that the in-region and OOR retiree concessions were not pension plans under ERISA.

Rule 54(b) states in part, "Any order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties and may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities."

The plaintiffs claimed that Judge Rodriguez abused his discretion by substituting his findings for Judge Justice's. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that Rule 54(b) authorized Judge Rodriguez to vacate Judge Justice's interlocutory findings and enter judgment based on his own findings.

Sadly, this case doesn't arise to level of he said/she said controversy that we've come to know and love from the Fifth Circuit, but it nonetheless gives us the unlikely outcome of the Federal Rules of Procedure trumping Justice.

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