Karen L. Handorf is a Partner at Cohen Milstein, and chair of the Firm’s Employee Benefits (ERISA) Practice Group. She joined the Firm in 2007, following a distinguished career in government service, litigating ERISA cases in federal appellate and district courts. In her role as head of the Employee Benefits Practice, Ms. Handorf represents the interests of employees, retirees, plan participants and beneficiaries in ERISA cases in the district courts and on appeal.

Ms. Handorf is involved in litigation and appeals involving a broad range of employee benefits issues including church plans. In Kaplan v. St. Peter’s Healthcare System, she represents a class of 2,800 participants in an alleged church plan, a case in which the Court of Appeals upheld the rights of St. Peter’s pension fund participants to a fully funded pension plan.  In addition, she currently leads a team of litigators in a series of church plan lawsuits alleging that health care systems wrongfully claim their benefit plans are exempt from ERISA’s protection. Ms. Handorf is overseeing and developing these cases.

Prior to joining Cohen Milstein, Ms. Handorf was an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), where she litigated ERISA cases in federal appellate and district courts for 25 years.  While at the DOL, she played a major role in formulating the Government’s position on ERISA issues expressed in amicus briefs filed by the Solicitor General in the United States Supreme Court.

She began her ERISA career as a trial attorney in the Plan Benefits Security Division (PBSD), where she litigated actions brought by the Secretary of Labor for violations of the fiduciary standards of ERISA and handled appellate matters. In 1989, she was appointed Counsel for Decentralized and Special Litigation responsible for supervising the DOL’s ERISA appellate litigation, district court litigation brought by regional offices of the Solicitor of Labor and administrative litigation involving the civil penalty provisions of ERISA.  At the DOL, Ms. Handorf established and supervised PBSD’s amicus brief writing program, which addressed a wide range of novel and difficult ERISA issues in both state and federal court.  In 2001, she was appointed Deputy Associate Solicitor of PBSD.  As the Deputy Associate Solicitor, she was responsible for overseeing litigation brought by the Secretary of Labor and legal advice provided to the Employee Benefit Security Administration, which administers Title I of ERISA.  In 2005, she returned to her position as supervisor of the ERISA appellate and amicus brief writing program, serving as Counsel for Appellate and Special Litigation.

Currently, Ms. Handorf is litigating a series of church plan cases, including:

  • Saint Peter's Healthcare System Church Plan Litigation: Cohen Milstein is co-lead counsel in Kaplan v. St. Peter’s Healthcare System alleging that the defendants wrongfully claim their pension plan is exempt from ERISA protection.  Ms. Handorf argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which unanimously ruled that St, Peter’s pension plan does not qualify as a "church plan." The Third Circuit further noted that as of 2012, religiously affiliated hospitals accounted for seven of the nation’s 10 largest nonprofit healthcare systems and that to construe the church plan exemption to apply to such hospitals would defeat the purpose of ERISA.  The ruling is likely to set the tone for other church plan litigation.

Her past successes include:

  • Goodyear Litigation: Ms. Handorf represented a class of 30,000 Goodyear union retirees in Redington v. Goodyear (N.D. Ohio), in which Cohen Milstein obtained approval of a class action settlement between the retirees, Goodyear and the United Steel Workers, resulting in the establishment of a $1 billion trust through which retiree health care benefits will be provided in the future. 

Ms. Handorf is a recipient of the Department of Labor Distinguished Career Service Award, and received Exceptional Achievement Awards for her work on ERISA 401(k) plan remedies, the amicus brief in the Enron litigation, retiree health care, the amicus program in general, the appellate brief in the Department’s Tower litigation, termination annuities litigation and multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWAs) litigation.

Ms. Handorf has been recognized for her expertise by her colleagues in the ERISA bar, who named her a Fellow of the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel.  She is a frequent speaker on ERISA issues for the ABA, various bar associations and private seminars, and serves as plaintiffs' co-chair of preemption subcommittee of the Employee Benefits Committee of the ABA's Labor Section. In 2016, she was named to the Best Lawyers in America.

Ms. Handorf attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she received a B.S. in Speech and History, and earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School. 

  • Deputy Associate Solicitor, Plan Benefits Security Division, U.S. Department of Labor
  • Counsel, Decentralized & Special Litigation, U.S. Department of Labor
  • Trial Attorney, Plan Benefits Security Division, U.S. Department of Labor
  • Plaintiffs Co-Chair, Pre-emption Subcommittee, Employee Benefits Committee, ABA Labor Section