A district court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania held that, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision in M & G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett, 135 S. Ct. 926 (2015), the Third Circuit’s rule that clear and express language was required for health benefits to vest was still good law. On that basis, it ruled that Johnson Controls, an employer, was not required by the applicable collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) to provide lifetime health benefits to its unionized retirees. Every few years, the UAW negotiated a new CBA with Johnson Controls or its predecessors providing health insurance benefits for employees and former employees. In 2009, Johnson Controls implemented a $50,000 lifetime cap on benefits for participants sixty-five and older, which resulted in some members being ineligible for future benefits. Plaintiffs, retirees who exceeded the lifetime cap, filed suit on behalf of themselves and similarly-situated groups of retirees. In plaintiffs’ view, the Tackett decision, including Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence in which she stated that clear and express language was not required to create vested rights to retirement benefits, prohibited presumptions for or against vesting. The district court ruled that Tackett had no effect on the Third Circuit’s “clear and express” standard, and that the rule is consistent with Tackett’s instruction to apply ordinary principles of contract law. Applying the Third Circuit rule, the court then divided the CBAs into three groups. For the first group, the court held that the inclusion of the phrase “shall have the following benefits . . . continued” did not unambiguously indicate that the benefits would vest past the expiration date of the applicable CBA. For the second group, the court held that the statement that health coverage would be continued “until your death,” was not a promise to vest unalterable health benefits in light of the explicit durational clauses and other language in the CBAs indicating that the parties intended that the health benefits would terminate. Instead, “until your death” indicated that the retirees were entitled to benefits during the term of the CBA but the benefits terminated if a retiree died before the CBA’ s expiration. And, for the final group, there was a clear and unambiguous reservation of rights. The court thus granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that none of the applicable agreements created vested rights to retirement benefits. The case is Grove v. Johnson Controls, Inc., No. 12-2622, 2016 WL 1271328 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 31. 2016).
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