Here Nancy B. Pridgen, Partner at the Patel Burkhalter Law Group in the US, provides LM with particular insight into employment benefits, compliance with regulatory change, ERISA litigation and the latest updates therein.
On employment matters, what are the most common issues you engage in alongside your businesses clients, whether it be employers or employees? Who are the most common clients you work with?
On behalf of my employer clients, the most common issue I see facing businesses today is compliance with the vast sea of changing regulatory and statutory oversight that employers face in the US broadly with regards to employment law. Employers need, and seek out, counsel and litigation avoidance advice on a daily basis to navigate the treacherous waters of both federal and state regulation, certainly with regard to hiring, benefits, wage and hours, termination, and everything in between. Employees tend to seek counsel when they are beginning or ending an employment relationship, whether it be a key executive seeking assistance with an employment contract containing restrictive covenants, or an exiting employee working through a severance offering.
Clients with whom I work most often tend to be human resources and benefits managers who need extra assistance with an unusual circumstance, whether it has already turned into litigation, or litigation is a very real possibility. I also do a lot of work with other attorneys who need assistance understanding the intricacies of employment law, or specifically, ERISA litigation.
You have dealt with almost every type of employment matter possible; which of these stands out to you as the most challenging segment to confront with a client? Please explain why.
ERISA litigation is one of the hardest areas of the law for individuals to understand. It has concepts – like deferential review of benefits determinations made by experienced administrators – that can be counterintuitive. There are numerous procedural hurdles that must be successfully cleared in order for a claimant’s case to proceed, unheeded, in federal court. These hurdles can provide traps for the unwary, but also provide opportunities for employers, plan sponsors and fiduciaries to keep the bulk of the decision-making in the hands of professionals responsible for shepherding claims through the administrative process. There are pros and cons to any process, of course. But once the process is mastered, ERISA litigation fits into the mold of other employment litigation – there is always a story to be told, usually with colorful characters and facts, and an interesting history behind the current dispute.
Have there been any recent US legislative or caselaw developments that would affect the way you conduct litigation matters surrounding employment benefits?
While the statutory and regulatory changes to ERISA affect the ERISA compliance world, the ERISA litigation landscape actually changes constantly with regard to case law development. The US Supreme Court has recently taken on an important ERISA litigation issue in many of its annual terms, handing down pronouncements that have variously clarified existing Circuit Court splits of authority, or in some cases, very nearly revamped some aspect of ERISA law. One must stay on top of the Supreme Court precedent in order to keep abreast of this ever-changing landscape.
Could you tell LM a little about your experience in ERISA litigation and how this contributes to your thought leadership in the employment sector?
ERISA litigation can be one of the most challenging areas of the law for employers, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, and employees/plan participants and beneficiaries alike to confront. I have litigated scores of employee benefits matters, ranging the gamut between individual benefits claims and class action fiduciary breach actions on behalf of employers, plan sponsors, insurers, claim fiduciaries and claimants. My experience on both the defense and plaintiff side provides my clients with the benefit of a well-rounded and full view of their case from all angles, rather than tunnel vision. Rather than arbitrarily dismissing potentially-viable arguments based on some misplaced sense of loyalty, I focus on analysing all aspects of a case from all viewpoints, in order to arrive at a full understanding of the issues. I have found that this balance has served all of my clients well.
You often write and speak publicly on benefit claims litigation and similar topics; how do you believe this helps you expand the boundaries of your speciality field?
Despite being out of law school and in practice for nearly 17 years now, I still very much enjoy the process of learning new things, which is very important in a practice area like ERISA litigation, where the case law is ever-changing. I especially enjoy the process of preparing for speaking engagements, as it requires me to read and learn a specific topic at a breadth and depth I might not otherwise be required to do for any particular case. I have found that this expands the boundaries of my practice, as it teaches me new areas of the law, allows me to spot new issues, and prepares me to see connections that I may not have otherwise seen. It is also a great way to meet interesting people who love what they do and are adept at articulating the intricacies of their chosen field of practice.