Top 5 legal cases of 2011

From health care reform to social media to Walmart, 2011 was a busy year for benefits law, regulations and court decisions. Here are five of the top legal issues that held our attention this year.


By Katleen Koster, Employee Benefit News, October 2011

In February, the National Labor Relations Board reaches a settlement with American Medical Response of Connecticut for firing an employee who made negative comments on her Facebook page about a supervisor.

The NLRB is a loud wake-up call to all employers, but to non-union employers in particular. Contrary to what many union-free managers believe, the National Labor Relations Act applies to them, their workplaces and their employees and thus, presents a significant source of liability.

For more on this case, read “Lessons learned from the NLRB-Facebook case.”

In June, a U.S. appeals court upholds President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, ruled that the decision by Congress to require Americans to buy health care insurance (the so-called individual mandate) in 2014 or face a fine was legal under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Then, in August, a divided panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded Congress overstepped its authority when lawmakers passed the individual mandate, the first such decision by a federal appeals court. The Justice Department can ask the full 11th Circuit to review the panel’s ruling and will also likely appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court blocks a job-discrimination class action lawsuit against Walmart. Justice Antonin Scalia said the women who brought the case, alleging bias in pay and promotions, failed to point to companywide policies that had a common effect on all women covered by the class action.

On Sept. 7, 2011 California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law an act prohibiting discrimination based on “genetic information.” The new law is effective Jan. 1, 2012 and covers California employers who regularly employ five or more workers. For more on this legislation, read “New law prohibits discrimination regarding ‘genetic information.’”

In May, the Supreme Court clarified how much harm a plan participant must demonstrate in order to win damages on a lawsuit involving a summary plan description that conflicts with the terms of its underlying plan document. The case arose out of a 2001 class action lawsuit in which current and former employees of insurance company CIGNA sued the organization, alleged that the SPD issued in connection with a conversion to a cash balance formula mistakenly led participants to believe that they would immediately accrue benefits under the cash balance plan.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the CIGNA case will be hailed as a victory for participants of employee benefit plans. The decision holds that participants could be entitled to equitable relief where there are inconsistencies between an SPD and the underlying plan document, and that detrimental reliance need not always be established. For more on this decision, read “Supreme Court ruling impacts ERISA class-action cases.”