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Supreme Court hears case regarding ERISA claims deadline

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) affects employees in New Jersey and all across the country by setting regulations on the management of employer-sponsored retirement plans. If a member of a retirement plan subject to ERISA believes that the plan's sponsors have violated their fiduciary duties to members of the plan, the member can bring a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the actions. Like most federal statutes, ERISA provides a deadline within which such lawsuits must be filed. For violations of the fiduciary provisions of the law, such claims must be filed within three years after the employee acquires "actual knowledge" of the violation. The meaning of this phrase was argued before the Supreme Court in a case heard last week.

The plaintiff was an engineer employed by Intel Corp. He sued the company in 2015, alleging that the company's executives violated ERISA by investing large portions of the company's 401(k) plan assets in highly speculative and risky investments that ultimately resulted in significant losses for plan participants. The case was filed in 2015, and Intel argued that the employee had actual knowledge of the crucial electronic documents regarding the alleged violations no later than 2012. It therefore argued that the case should be dismissed.

The employee countered by showing that the documents that Intel cited were provided as attachments to e-mails and that he did not read the attachments until 2015. The court appeared sympathetic to the employee's arguments. Justice Brett Kavanaugh observed that it is impossible to have actual knowledge of a document if a person has not read it. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that she doesn't read all of the mailings she receives about her investments.

If the court sides with the employee, plan sponsors across the country will face expanded liability for breaches of their fiduciary duties. A decision is likely to be announced in June next year. Until then, any questions about one's retirement income can be addressed by experienced professionals.

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