Michelle Yau, chair of Cohen Milstein's Employee Benefits/ERISA practice, has spearheaded some of the most significant ERISA class actions in the nation. In 2022, Chambers USA named her a "Top Ranked" individual in ERISA Litigation and in 2021, she was named a Law360 Benefits MVP. Ms. Yau combines ardent dedication to protecting her clients’ retirement assets with rare insight into complex financial transactions and actuarial issues, informed by her Wall Street and government experience.
Ms. Yau is passionate about righting economic injustice and protecting pension plan participants. She has a unique background having served as an Honors Program Attorney at the Department of Labor where she enforced and administered a variety of labor statutes and working as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs in the Financial Institutions Group of the Investment Banking Division.
This experience has allowed Ms. Yau to play an instrumental role in important financial litigation, including high-profile ERISA lawsuits emerging from the Madoff Ponzi scheme:
- In re Beacon Association Litigation (S.D.N.Y.): Ms. Yau represented a multi-plan class of participants, beneficiaries, and fiduciaries, which settled along with other consolidated cases for $219 million in 2013, representing 70% of the Class members’ out-of-pocket losses. The judge praised the settlement, describing the outcome as “extraordinary” and the praising the “hard work” done by plaintiffs’ counsel, including Cohen Milstein.
- Becker v. Wells Fargo & Co. et al. (D. Minn.): Ms. Yau led the team in litigation and recently achieved a $32.5 million settlement prior to class certification and expert discovery. If approved, the settlement will recover 40% of estimated damages.
Ms. Yau is currently involved in a series of high-profile class actions involving 401(k) Plans, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) for the mismanagement of employee retirement savings. Notable matters Include:
- Casino Queen ESOP Litigation (S.D. Ill.): To date, Ms. Yau has won two motions to dismiss in this case on behalf of employee participants. She represents ESOP participants who allege that the Board of Directors of CQ Holding Company, Inc. and related defendants violated ERISA when they created an ESOP to buy their Casino Queen stock for $170 million, a significantly inflated price.
- Western Global Airlines ESOP Litigation (D. Del.): Ms. Yau represents employees in challenging the valuation of Western Global Airlines at approximately $1.3 billion, based on the sale of 37.5% of the company to the ESOP for $510 million. The lawsuit seeks to restore substantial losses to the ESOP and to disgorge all ill-gotten gains received by the Neff family.
- New York Life 401(k) Plan Litigation (S.D.N.Y.): Ms. Yau represents employees in a lawsuit against New York Life which alleges corporate self-dealing and the prohibited transfer of employees’ retirement assets to defendants at the expense of the retirement savings of New York Life employees and agents.
- Triad Manufacturing Inc. ESOP Litigation (N.D. Ill.): Ms. Yau defeated a motion to compel arbitration in this case and thereafter achieved a precedent-setting decision in the Seventh Circuit upholding the lower court's denial of the motion to compel arbitration. As a result of this decision, Cohen Milstein and co-counsel were recognized in The American Lawyer as “Litigators of the Week.”
- Western Milling ESOP Litigation (E.D. Cal.): Cohen Milstein represents participants and beneficiaries of the Western Milling Employee Stock Ownership Plan, who allege that the ESOP’s trustees breached their fiduciary duties by engaging in risky investments in violation of ERISA, including purchasing 100% of Kruse-Western, Inc. company stock, which was valued at approximately 90% of the purchase price for several years after the ESOP Transaction.
Ms. Yau played an instrumental leadership role in the following high-profile cases:
- 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 is improperly claiming that its pension plans are exempt from ERISA’s protections because they are “church plans,” and as a result has underfunded its plans by over $1.2 billion. In June 2017, the Supreme Court reversed previous rulings on consolidated church plan cases and ordered plaintiffs, in this case, to file an amended complaint. On October 19, 2021, the Court granted preliminary approval of a $100 million settlement.
- Presence Health Plan Litigation (N.D. Ill.): Cohen Milstein represented Presence Health Network-sponsored pension plan participants and beneficiaries, who allege that defendants wrongly claimed that the plans under dispute qualified as ERISA-exempt “church plans” and subsequently denied participants the protections of ERISA, including underfunding the plans by over $175 million. In July 2018, the court granted final approval to a $50 million settlement.
- Trinity Church Plan Litigation (D. Md.): Cohen Milstein was counsel to a class of defined benefit participants in which allege that the hospital’s plan is not a church plan and thus the class is entitled to ERISA’s protections and thereby underfunded the plan by over $600 million. In May 2017, the granted final approval of a $75 million settlement.
- Merrill Lynch ERISA Litigation (S.D.N.Y.): Cohen Milstein served as interim co-lead counsel in a class action alleging that fiduciaries of the Merrill Lynch retirement plans imprudently purchased and held inflated Merrill employer stock for the retirement accounts of the companies’ employees. The litigation was resolved for $75 million. Ms. Yau was engaged in all aspects of the litigation.
- Weyerhaeuser Pension Plan Litigation (D. Or.): Cohen Milstein was lead counsel in a lawsuit alleging that the Weyerhaeuser Company caused its Defined Benefit Retirement Plans to engage in a risky investment strategy involving alternative investments and derivatives, causing the Plans’ master trust to become underfunded. A settlement was reached for injunctive relief on behalf of Plans’ participants and beneficiaries. Ms. Yau was engaged in all aspects of the litigation.
Ms. Yau is a prolific public speaker and is frequently invited to speak on ERISA litigation updates and trends. She is also a senior editor of the ERISA treatise published by Bloomberg BNA, Employee Benefits Law, and a member of the Benefits Editorial Advisory Board for Law360.
Ms. Yau received her law degree from Harvard Law School, where she was awarded several public interest fellowships, including the Heyman Fellowship for academic excellence and a demonstrated commitment to federal public service. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia. Ms. Yau was also selected as an Echols Scholar and awarded the Student Council Scholarship for leadership, academic achievement, and community service.