By: Mark Casciari and Barbara Borowski

In Stark v. Mars, Inc., No. 2:10-cv-642, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98791 (S.D. Ohio July 17, 2012), an ERISA pension plan participant asserted a claim for misrepresentation by plan fiduciaries about the amount of her pension benefits.  Plaintiff was an employee of Mars until her voluntary resignation in 2004 at age 46.  In 2004, just prior to leaving Mars, plaintiff was given a booklet which advised her that her estimated pension benefit opening balance as of December 31, 2003, would be $297,826.73, and that if she left the company at age 46, her estimated monthly benefit at age 50 would be $2,758.  In 2008, plaintiff turned 50 years of age and she received a letter advising her that she could begin receiving benefits at any time, and that she currently had an account balance of $378,763.58.  In February 2009, plaintiff accessed the “Your Benefits Resources” website maintained by an administrative service provider.  The website advised her that she would receive $5,365 per month, but it included a disclaimer that it “does not give any warranty or other assurances as to the content of the material appearing on the site, its accuracy, completeness, timelessness or fitness for any particular purpose.”  Shortly thereafter, plaintiff contacted the Mars benefits call-in center, who likewise advised her that she would receive $5,364.63 per month.  Plaintiff mentioned that she thought the number was higher than she expected.  Plaintiff then requested to commence her benefits.  Plaintiff received several additional documents in late February 2009 advising her that her monthly benefit was $5,364.63 and containing disclaimers, which provided that Mars reserves the right to correct any errors and that the plan controls.  The call-in center then again confirmed the benefit amount represented to her.  In late April 2009, the service provider discovered that it had incorrectly calculated benefits for five people, including plaintiff.  In June 2009, plaintiff was advised that the benefits payments she had been receiving were erroneous and resulted in a $15,307.25 overpayment.  Mars denied plaintiff’s administrative claim and appeal, but decided to pay the $15,307.25 overpayment back into the plan rather than having plaintiff repay it, and offered plaintiff an opportunity to suspend her pension payments and to resume them at a later date or to elect another form of payment.  Plaintiff then filed suit.

The Court found that plaintiff’s estoppel claims failed because there was no evidence that Mars or the Committee knew that the estimates provided to plaintiff in February 2009 were incorrect, that Mars ever encountered a problem with the accuracy of estimates, or that Mars had any other reason to question the estimates provided by the service provider.  At worst, the evidence showed “an honest mistake,” and the estimates were accompanied by disclaimers indicating that the plan’s terms would control if there were any inconsistencies.  In light of the disclaimers, plaintiff could not have reasonably believed that Mars intended for her to assume that the pension estimates are error-free.  The Court also found that the call-in center’s use of the word “estimates” when providing benefit information was evidence that plaintiff could not have reasonably concluded that Mars was making a binding representation concerning the amount of her benefits.

The Court found plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim failed because the call-in center employees and the service provider were not acting as fiduciaries when they provided the erroneous pension estimates to plaintiff.  They did not exercise any discretionary authority or discretionary control respecting management of the plan, disposition of its assets, or its administration.  The Court also found that Mars and the pension Committee did not breach their fiduciary duty to plaintiff by relying on the information provided by the service provider and that any reliance by plaintiff on the erroneous estimates would have been unreasonable in light of the disclaimers.

This case is noteworthy because the oral and written erroneous pension estimates did not have the effect of modifying the terms of the plan because of disclaimers that the plan controls and evidence of an “honest mistake.”