Karen L. Handorf is a Partner at Cohen Milstein and Chair of the firm’s Employee Benefits/ERISA practice group, where she leads the firm’s efforts in identifying, litigating, and appealing often novel employee benefits issues. In this role, Ms. Handorf represents the interests of employees, retirees, plan participants and beneficiaries in ERISA cases in the district courts and on appeal.
A Fellow of the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel, Ms. Handorf joined Cohen Milstein in 2007 following a distinguished 25 year career in government service where she was the Deputy Associate Solicitor, Plan Benefits Security Division, among other senior positions she held at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). During her tenure at the DOL, Ms. Handorf played a major role in formulating and litigating the Government’s position on ERISA issues expressed in amicus briefs filed by the Solicitor General in the United States Supreme Court.
At Cohen Milstein, Ms. Handorf has led some of the most significant ERISA-related litigation in recent U.S. history. Under her guidance, Cohen Milstein has successfully litigated over twenty “church plan” cases, which allege that employers had improperly claimed their pension plans qualified for the “church plan” exemption under ERISA, resulting in billions-of-dollars of underfunded plans and losses to beneficiaries. In 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on three consolidated church plan cases, which Ms. Handorf co-led. In June 2017, the Court reversed the lower courts’ rulings, which favored the plaintiffs, but would not rule on plaintiffs’ other theories of liability, thereby re-directing the cases back to district court for further litigation. Since then, under Ms. Handorf’s guidance, the remaining cases have settled successfully or continue to be litigated in federal court on alternative grounds.
Ms. Handorf also leads the firm’s investigation into what is often groundbreaking litigation of other types of employer-sponsored defined benefit plans, such as 401ks, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), and health plans that are allegedly in breach of ERISA.
Recent high-profile successes include:
- Providence Health Services Church Plan Litigation (W.D. Wash.): Cohen Milstein served as co-lead counsel to a class of defined benefit participants of Providence’s health & Service Case Balance Retirement Plan who alleged that fiduciaries underfunded the pension plan because they improperly operated it under the ERISA “church plan” exemption. In March 2017, the court granted final approval of a $315.9 million settlement, one of the largest settlements of its kind, and requires Providence to continue making minimum plan contributions that aim to fully fund the plan by 2029.
- Bon Secours Health System Church Litigation (D.Md.): Cohen Milstein served as lead counsel to a class of defined benefit participants of seven Bon Secours Health System Inc. pension plans which improperly operated under the “church plan” exemption of ERISA. In May 2017, the court granted final approval of a settlement of over $102 million, one of the largest settlements of its kind.
- Trinity Health Corporation Church Plan Litigation (D.Md.): Cohen Milstein served as co-lead counsel to a class of defined benefit participants of Trinity Health Corp. pensions plans which improperly operated under the “church plan” exemption of ERISA. In May 2017, the court granted final approval of a $75 million settlement.
- SSM Health Care Church Plan Litigation (E.D. Mo.): Cohen Milstein served as lead counsel to a class of defined benefit participants who alleged that SSM Health improperly operated its defined benefit pension plans under the ERISA church plan exemption, thereby underfunding the plans as required by ERISA to the detriment of plan benefits. In June 2019, the court granted final approval of a $60 million settlement.
- Advocate Health Care Church Plan Litigation (N.D. Ill.): Cohen Milstein served as co-lead counsel to a class of defined benefit participants, who alleged that the hospital’s plan was not a church plan and thus the class was entitled to ERISA’s protections. After the Supreme Court redirected this case back to the district court, in June 2018, the court granted final approval of a settlement, which provides a guarantee of accrued benefits for ten years and significant non-monetary equitable consideration.
- OregonSaves (D. Or.): Retained as outside counsel, Ms. Handorf represented the State of Oregon, which became the first state in the nation to implement a defined contribution savings program, called OregonSaves, for private sector employees. The ERISA Industry Committee filed a lawsuit, arguing that the program is preempted by ERISA. A settlement was reached in March 2018.
On-going high-profile litigation includes:
- Dignity Health Church Plan Litigation (N.D. Cal.): Cohen Milstein is co-counsel to a class of defined benefit participants, which alleges that Dignity Health pension plans are improperly operated under ERISA’s “church plan” exemption, and, as a result, has underfunded its plans by over $1.2 billion. After the Supreme Court redirected this case back to the district court, in April 2019, the district court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss, allowing plaintiffs’ claims to proceed. A settlement is pending preliminary approval.
- St. Peter’s Healthcare System Church Plan Litigation (D.N.J.): Cohen Milstein is counsel to a class of defined benefit participants, which alleges that the hospital’s plan is not a church plan and thus the class is entitled to ERISA’s protections. After the Supreme Court redirected this case back to the district court, in April 2019, the district court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss, allowing plaintiffs’ claims to proceed.
As a testament to her expertise in ERISA, and excellent lawyering and advocacy skills, Ms. Handorf is frequently invited to represent entities in filing their amicus briefs before appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. Recent filings include:
- On behalf of former senior officials of the DOL, including the former Solicitor of the DOL and former Assistant Secretary for Employee Benefits Security Administration as amicus counsel before the US. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, supporting the appellees and affirmance on the merits in State of New York v. United States Department of Labor, arguing that the DOL’s Final Rule, as guided by the Trump Administration, is an unreasonable interpretation of ERISA and encourages the proliferation of entrepreneurial schemes designed to enrich the promoters, contrary to Congress’s clear intent that ERISA protect the health care benefits of America’s workers .
- On behalf of the Pension Rights Center as amicus counsel before the United States Supreme Court supporting the petitioners on the merits in Tibble v. Edison International, arguing that 401(k) plan fiduciaries must monitor the fees charged by plan investments on a periodic basis, and that participants can sue to require fiduciaries to replace overpriced investment options in 401(k) plans more than six years after the investment options were initially added to the plan.
- On behalf of AARP and the National Employment Lawyers Association as amicus counsel before the Unites States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in support of the appellants in Burnett v. Express Scripts Inc., Anthem, Inc., arguing that Anthem, a third-party administrator, was retained by the plans, had the management discretion over, and was therefore a fiduciary of Express Scripts prescription drug program and assets used to pay for prescription-drug benefits.
Elected by her peers as a Fellow to the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel in 2007, Ms. Handorf was elected to the College’s Board of Governors in 2018. She served as Plaintiffs' Co-Chair of Preemption and Civil Procedure Subcommittee of the Employee Benefits Committee of the ABA's Labor Section. Ms. Handorf has also received numerous industry recognitions, including being named Law360’s “MVP – Benefits” (2020), recognizing the top five most influential employee benefits and ERISA attorneys in the United States, as well as being named among The National Law Journal’s “Elite Women of the Plaintiffs’ Bar” (2020). She has also been named to the Best Lawyers in America (2016 – 2020), and, in 2019, she was named “Lawyer of the Year” in Washington, DC in ERISA Litigation.
While working at the DOL, Ms. Handorf was the recipient of the Department’s Career Service Award. She also received several 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 is a frequent commentator and speaker on ERISA issues for the press, the ABA, Practising Law Institute, American Conference Institute, various Bar associations, and private seminars.
Ms. Handorf attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she received a B.S. in Speech and History, and earned her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School.