Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC associate Jamie Bowers has helped negotiate multimillion-dollar settlements in ERISA class actions against SunTrust Banks Inc., Bon Secours Health System Inc. and St. Anthony Medical Center Inc., earning her a spot among Law360's Benefits Rising Stars.
The biggest cases of her career:
Bowers' recent advocacy for workers who claim their employers mismanaged their retirement plans has netted $98.3 million for Bon Secours Health System employees and $29 million for SunTrust Bank employees.
But when Bowers assesses her career litigating Employee Retirement Income Security Act cases, the one she remembers most wasn't the suit that netted the highest-dollar settlement.
Bowers' favorite case required her to fight for roughly 1,700 workers who said their retirement benefits were slashed by nearly half after the hospital they worked for terminated its underfunded retirement plan in 2012. Bowers argued that the hospital had wrongly used its religious ties to skirt ERISA's funding requirements by claiming an exemption from the law intended for churches and their affiliates.
That case resulted in a $4 million settlement with St. Anthony Medical Center last year.
"The reason it was such a big case for me was because it shows how important ERISA is and what happens if those protections aren't there," Bowers said.
The case also gave her the opportunity to argue her first motion before a federal judge, during the final approval hearing for the settlement. She recalled one of her clients approaching her after the hearing in a moment that drove home the significance of the case for her.
"Afterward, the client hugged me and thanked me for all I'd done. I'd been working with her for the past three years. It was a great moment and nice conclusion to the case," Bowers said. "Overall, it was a really rewarding experience, and I was happy I got to participate in it."
What motivates her:
Bowers said her motivating force as a benefits attorney is connected to moments like the one she shared with that client, a St. Anthony retiree.
"I don't remember every document I've ever written. What you do remember is the clients," Bowers said. "In large part, that's what motivates me — looking out for their interests, trying to improve their lives, trying to protect their benefits."
Bowers said that motivation has driven her for the entirety of her career as a benefits attorney, during which she has only represented plaintiffs.
Why she's an ERISA attorney:
Bowers said she was drawn to working with ERISA because "it's a statute that will affect pretty much everyone you know."
"It doesn't just protect your benefits — it really protects your compensation," Bowers said. "The benefits are part of your compensation. It's not something extra. It's this statute that can really affect how your retirement goes, how your working life goes."
Despite the fact that millions of Americans receive their health care through work and participate in their job's pension or 401(k) plan, many don't know about ERISA — but the law becomes relevant quickly when benefits are being mismanaged, Bowers said.
"A lot of people don't know what ERISA does for you. But it becomes really apparent when the provisions of ERISA are being misused," Bowers said, noting it's still striking to see "how deeply benefits can be affected" by mismanagement.
How her practice area could change:
Bowers said that a spate of recent cases challenging plaintiffs' standing under ERISA concern her. These cases — including Thole v. U.S. Bank , which resulted in a loss for retirees at the U.S. Supreme Court — attempt to shut the courthouse doors to a potentially broad swath of workers and retirees, she said.
Calling ERISA an important tool for workers fighting for retirement security, Bowers said she wants plaintiffs attorneys to continue pushing back against defense attorneys' attempt to make suing under the law more difficult.
"That's the main thing I've been thinking about lately," Bowers said.
Ms. Bowers' complete Rising Star profile can be viewed here.