Few Legal Options for Workers, Retirees When Church-Affiliated Hospital Pension Plans Fall Short

Sophie Esquier

Sophie Esquier

Bernice Benson spent 37 years working in the business office at St. Clare’s Hospital in upstate New York before retiring in 2008. The exit interview didn’t go well.

Benson learned her defined benefit pension would not be “what she had expected.” She took the hospital up on an offer to work one day a week in retirement to supplement pension payments that fell short by $200 a month. Eight years later, participants learned the St. Clare’s pension plan had been woefully underfunded. Benson, now 75 and still working one day per week, expects her pension payments to stop entirely around the time she reaches age 80.

Many workers and retirees like Benson are not covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the 1974 law commonly known as ERISA, which protects the rights of defined benefit pension beneficiaries. The law always exempted plans offered by churches and, years later, an amendment extended that exemption to include related employers such as hospitals affiliated with qualifying religious organizations.

Those extended exemptions were challenged in court more recently. But a unanimous 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings and affirmed that religiously affiliated hospitals qualify for the ERISA exemption. Although Supreme Court left open the possibility of subsequent lawsuits, by not addressing the question of whether a hospital’s internal benefits committee is a “principal purpose organization,” the ERISA exemption is still permitted.

Sophie Esquier, staff attorney at the Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center, and Boston University law professor Maria O’Brien Hylton looked into the remaining legal options available to retirees affected by the decision. Writing in the New York University Review of Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation, they outline several ways employees and retirees affected by the exemption might use state laws to fight for their benefits when necessary. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Timing of Pension Claim Helps Former Wife Collect Survivor Benefit

The Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center is part of the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. This is one in an occasional series of posts about cases the center pursues on behalf of its clients.

Timing can be everything.

The Pension Action Center has represented clients in many disputes involving divorce and the right to benefits. Often these cases hinge on whether couples reached an agreement and signed documents about the disposition of retirement benefits as part of their divorce settlement. Continue reading

Meet Anna-Marie Tabor: New Director of Pension Action Center at UMass Boston

Anna-Marie Tabor has been named the new director of the Pension Action Center at the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute. Tabor, who joins UMass Boston from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has deep legal experience defending the rights of individuals on issues related to financial services. She recently discussed her career and plans as the center’s new director. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

You’re a lawyer with a lot of public service experience. What attracted you to this particular position?

I’ve always been interested in economic justice. When I heard about the Pension Action Center, I was impressed by the enormous impact it’s had returning millions of dollars to individual clients. That’s not just a series of one-time payments but streams of income over time that can make such a difference for someone struggling to afford basic necessities. I’m also very excited about being located at UMass Boston and in the Gerontology Institute. I’m looking forward to working with the students and faculty to identify opportunities to delve into some of the systemic issues that the Pension Action Center sees with its clients. Continue reading

PAC receives $1 Million Grant for New England Pension Counseling

A new $1 million grant will make it possible for the Pension Action Center at UMass Boston to continue providing free pension legal counseling to people across New England for the next five years.

The grant was made by the Administration for Community Living of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a long-time supporter of the center. The funds were awarded to the New England Pension Assistance Project, which is operated by the center. Continue reading

Pension Action Center Names Anna-Marie Tabor New Director

Anna-Marie Tabor, a distinguished attorney with a career dedicated to consumer protection and civil rights, has been selected as the new director of the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Tabor is the Deputy Fair Lending Director for Supervision at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She will leave the federal government in July to lead the center, part of the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute. Tabor will succeed long-time director Jeanne Medeiros, who is retiring.

The Pension Action Center (PAC) provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. Since its creation in 1994, the center has recovered more than $58 million in pension benefits owed to its clients. Continue reading

Pension Action Center Forms Joint Venture to Support Counseling for Illinois Retirees

The Pension Action Center at UMass Boston and the Center for Disability & Elder Law in Chicago have formed a new joint venture to promote and support free pension counseling services to Illinois retirees whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied.

The collaboration is intended to improve education and outreach that will increase the number of clients served in Illinois. It will also increase philanthropic support for the pension-counseling program in the state. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Tracking Down Pension Rights Awarded Long Ago in Divorce Settlement

The Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center is part of the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. This is one in an occasional series of posts about cases the center pursues on behalf of its clients.

Couples who go through a divorce need to sort out many financial issues. Settling rights to pension benefits can be an important part of the process.

But a divorce may take place many years or even decades before a pension begins to pay a benefit. Over that time, a lot can happen to separate former spouses from benefits they are legally entitled to collect. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Tracking Pensions After Records Lost Along Trail of Mergers and Bankruptcies

The Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center is part of the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. This is one in an occasional series of posts about cases the center pursues on behalf of its clients.

Two sisters in Chicago had been employed for many years by catalog retailer Spiegel Inc. during their working lives. But after they both passed retirement age, the sisters couldn’t find any sign of the pension benefits they had earned. Continue reading

A Big Year for UMass Boston Gerontology

It’s been a year for the record books.

The Gerontology Institute Blog covered every major department and institute event of 2017. But few of those posts could match the impact of coverage of students and their accomplishments filed during commencement season.

Start with those UMass Boston gerontology students who were awarded PhD degrees this year – as a group of eight, the largest in department history. One of the students, Mai See Yang, was selected as the speaker for the year’s graduate commencement ceremony. Read about her extraordinary story and then take a look at her commencement address. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Assisting Veteran Denied Pension Vesting Right

The Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center is part of the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. This is one in an occasional series of posts about cases the center pursues on behalf of its clients.

An Illinois man who reached his normal retirement age in June of this year discovered he had a big pension problem. The company he expected to pay the pension said it didn’t exist.

The man came to the Pension Action Center for help through the Illinois Pension Assistance Project. PAC counselor Susan Hart and attorney Sophie Esquier soon discovered the event that caused their client’s immediate problem had taken place more than 40 years earlier. The event was the Vietnam War. Continue reading