In a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Estate of Barton v. ADT Security Services Pension Plan, No. 13-56379 (9th Cir. April 21, 2016), the panel of appellate judges shed light on the appropriate burden of proof required to establish entitlement to certain pension benefits.
Bruce Barton worked at the American District Telegraph Company (ADT) for nearly twenty years. He learned that other former employees received pension benefits and, after turning 65, he applied for benefits as well. Since Barton had resigned from ADT in the 1980’s, the company was purchased and went through a corporate restructuring. ADT’s benefits determination committee held that Barton could not prove he met the required term of continuous employment so as to be entitled to pension benefits. After a bench trial in the US District Court for the Central District, the Court also found that Barton did meet his burden of proof in establishing his entitlement to benefits.
The Ninth Circuit panel reversed, holding that the burden of proof was incorrectly placed on Barton to establish his entitlement to pension benefits. The panel held that when a claimant has made a prima facie case that he is entitled to a pension benefit but lacks access to the key information about corporate structures or hours worked needed to substantiate his claim, and the defendant controls such information, the burden shifts to the defendant to produce this information. The panel contrasted this process with cases where the claimant has better information needed to prove an entitlement—such as test results and doctor’s records needed to establish an illness to qualify for disability benefits.
In a strongly worded dissent, one appellate judge criticized the ruling for making an “ad hoc” exception to well-established precedent guiding a court’s standard of review. The dissenting judge called the decision a “disaster.” Without a doubt, this case leaves lingering questions about the burden of proof in benefits eligibility determinations. Time will tell whether this is a case limited to its facts or whether it will have a broader impact on benefits determinations across the Ninth Circuit.