In Buckner v. Murray, No. 21-cv-567, 2024 WL 1366785 (D.D.C. Mar. 30, 2024), the court dismissed the United Mine Workers of America 1974 Pension Plan’s suit to collect $6.5 billion in withdrawal liability because the trustees did not file suit in accordance with the plan’s trust agreement.  After the contributing employer filed for bankruptcy, the plan assessed its controlled group members with $6.5 billion in withdrawal liability.  As we reported last year, the court previously held that financial support provided to the plan by Congress did not divest the plan’s trustees of Article III standing to pursue a claim to collect the withdrawal liability.  Defendants subsequently moved to dismiss the case for failing to state a claim, arguing that the trustees did not follow the procedures set forth in the trust agreement for enforcing the plan’s claims.  The trust agreement required suits on behalf of the plan to be filed by at least one union and one employer trustee.  Because the employer trustees had recused themselves from decisions involving the withdrawal liability at issue, a union trustee and an “alternate” employer trustee—who was appointed for the limited purpose of addressing matters relating to the contributing employer’s bankruptcy, including any resulting withdrawal liability—filed suit on behalf of the plan instead.  The court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that the suit did not comply with the trust agreement because the “alternate” trustee was not an employer trustee within the meaning of the trust agreement.  The court rejected the plan’s argument that it had to accept as true, on a motion to dismiss, the plan’s allegation that the “alternate” trustee was a duly appointed employer trustee because this was a legal conclusion, not a factual allegation.  The court also rejected the plan’s argument that a deferential standard of review applied to the trustees’ interpretation of the trust agreement because this standard only applies in actions by participants challenging benefit denials.  The court dismissed the action without prejudice, explaining that properly appointed trustees of the plan could refile it.

Proskauer’s Perspective

The court’s holding is a useful reminder that ERISA plans and their trustees are bound to act in accordance with their governing plan documents, even when pursuing the plan’s statutory right to collect withdrawal liability.  Failure to adhere to the written instruments, or to amend them as warranted, may create more problems down the line, such as potentially imperiling the plan’s ability to collect substantial amounts of money that are owed to it. 

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Photo of Neil V. Shah Neil V. Shah

Neil V. Shah is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group, where he focuses on ERISA litigation.

Neil represents plan sponsors, trustees, and other fiduciaries in ERISA class actions for…

Neil V. Shah is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group, where he focuses on ERISA litigation.

Neil represents plan sponsors, trustees, and other fiduciaries in ERISA class actions for breach of fiduciary duty arising out of investment losses and prohibited transactions, as well as Department of Labor and other governmental and internal investigations.  Neil also counsels both employers and multiemployer funds regarding the assessment and collection of delinquent contributions and withdrawal liability.

Prior to joining Proskauer, Neil was an associate at a large regional firm, where he litigated individual and class actions involving challenges to insurer claims adjudication procedures under ERISA, fraud recoveries against healthcare providers, and claims for benefits.

Neil has authored several articles, including those published in the New Jersey Law Journal and Bloomberg National Affairs. He is also a frequent contributor to Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Blog.

Photo of Daniel Wesson Daniel Wesson

Dan is an associate in Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation and focuses on ERISA Litigation. His litigation practice ranges from complex class actions to individual benefit claims concerning all types of plans, including 401(k) and 403(b) plans, defined benefit plans and health and…

Dan is an associate in Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation and focuses on ERISA Litigation. His litigation practice ranges from complex class actions to individual benefit claims concerning all types of plans, including 401(k) and 403(b) plans, defined benefit plans and health and welfare plans.  Dan represents large corporations, individuals, multiemployer pension plans, insurers, benefit plan committees and independent fiduciaries.  Dan also advises clients on plan administration, benefits restructuring, risk assessment and government investigations.

Dan has coauthored multiple articles in the Benefits Law Journal and is a frequent contributor to Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Blog.

Dan earned his B.A. from Northeastern University and his J.D. from Georgetown University.  He was a member of the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy.  During his first summer at law school and the following semester, he served in the Division of Plan Benefits Security at the United States Department of Labor in Washington D.C., where he was a Gary S. Tell ERISA Litigation Fellow.