Welcome to the Wheaton Franciscan ERISA Litigation Settlement website. This website is intended to keep class members informed regarding the Class Action Settlement of the case In Re Wheaton Franciscan ERISA Litigation, No. 16-cv-04232 (N.D. Ill.). For questions about the settlement, please contact Class Counsel at the numbers provided below. For questions about your individual benefits, please call Mercer's Pension Connect, at 877-459-3321.
On January 16, 2018, the Court finalized the settlement in granting Plaintiffs' motions for final approval of the settlement and for attorneys' fees, reimbursement of expenses, and incentive awards to named Plaintiffs.
In Re Wheaton Franciscan ERISA Litigation is a case brought in the Northern District of Illinois under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). On April 11, 2016, Plaintiff Diann M. Curtis filed a putative class action complaint against Wheaton Franciscan (“Wheaton”) and various individual defendants, alleging violations of ERISA. On June 28, 2016, Plaintiffs Bruce Bowen and Cheryl Mueller filed a separate putative class action complaint against Wheaton, Ascension Health, and various other defendants (collectively, the “Defendants”) also alleging violations of ERISA. The two complaints were consolidated into a single case on January 4, 2017.
Both complaints alleged that Defendants denied ERISA protections to participants and beneficiaries of the Wheaton Franciscan System Retirement Plan (“Plan”), a defined benefit pension plan, by incorrectly claiming that the Plan qualifies as an ERISA-exempt “church plan.” The complaints alleged that because the Plan is not a “church plan,” Defendants violated ERISA in a number of ways, including, among others:
- Underfunding the Plan by over $134.5 million;
- Requiring participants to complete five years of service before participants became fully vested in their accrued benefits;
- Decreasing accrued benefits by several amendments to the Plan in violation of ERISA’s anti-cutback provisions; and
- Failing to furnish Plaintiffs or any member of the class with required statements and reports.
Plaintiffs also alleged that application of the “church plan” exemption to the Plan would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
The case was stayed on January 4, 2017 pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of an appeal in another church plan case, Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, 137 S. Ct. 1652 (2017) (“Advocate”). During the stay, the parties began settlement negotiations. Following the Supreme Court’s June 5, 2017 ruling that held that pension plans need not be established by churches in order to qualify as ERISA-exempt church plans, the parties agreed to settle this case.
For more information about the history of this case, please visit the Wheaton Franciscan Church Plan Litigation webpage.
The Settlement Class
On January 16, 2018, the Honorable Gary Feinerman finally approved the settlement on behalf of the following class (the “Settlement Class”): “All persons who, as of July 31, 2017, are former and/or current Plan participants, whether vested or non-vested, and their beneficiaries.”
The Settlement provides that, in exchange for a release of all claims, Ascension Health will guarantee the payment of the first $29,500,000 of benefits that are distributable from the Plan to Settlement Class members in the event trust assets attributable to the Plan become insufficient to pay such benefits. The Settlement also provides that Ascension Health may buy out this guarantee obligation by making an aggregate total of $25,000,000 (twenty-five million dollars) in contributions to the Plan’s trust. The cash amount, if any, will be contributed to the Plan as a whole, rather than to individual Plan participants and beneficiaries. The amount of individual Settlement Class members’ pension benefits will not increase as a result of the Settlement.
Additionally, the Settlement provides that current participants in the Plan will receive certain ERISA-like reporting, disclosure, and administrative protections. Notably, Plan participants will receive notice on an annual basis about the funding status of the Plan and the retirement benefits that they have accrued. This annual notice will include, among other information, a summary of the Plan’s funding arrangements, a summary of the Plan’s expenses, a statement of the Plan’s liabilities and assets, information about the increase or decrease in net plan assets for the year, and summary information about the Plan’s total income.
Status of the Settlement
In accordance with Judge Feinerman's Order Granting Preliminary Approval, on November 28, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Final Approval of the Settlement Agreement, and Plaintiffs' Counsel filed a Motion for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Reimbursement of Expenses, and for Incentive Awards to the Named Plaintiffs. On January 16, 2018, Judge Feinerman held a Final Fairness Hearing in Federal District Court in Chicago, Illinois. Following the hearing, Judge Feinerman granted final approval of the settlement and entered judgment on the same day. The final approval order can be found here.
Q: How do I know whether I am part of the Settlement?
The Court has certified the Action as a class action. You are a member of the Settlement Class if,as of July 31, 2017, you were a former and/or current Plan participant, whether vested or non-vested, or the beneficiary of such a participant.
Q: What does the Settlement provide?
Defendants guarantee that, for as long as the Plan is sponsored by any of the Released Parties, Ascension Health will guarantee the payment of the first $29,500,000 of benefits that are distributable from the Plan to Settlement Class members in the event trust assets attributable to the Plan become insufficient to pay such benefits. The Settlement also provides that Ascension Health may buy out this guarantee obligation by making an aggregate total of $25,000,000 in contributions to the Plan’s trust. Because the Plan is a defined benefit pension plan and not a defined contribution plan with individual accounts, like a 403(b) plan or 401(k) plan, the cash amount will be contributed to the Plan as a whole, rather than to individual Plan participants and beneficiaries. Your pension benefit will not increase as a result of the Settlement. Additionally, the Settlement provides significant non-monetary equitable consideration, in that current participants in the Plan will receive certain ERISA-like financial and administrative protections, some of which continue for the next seven and one half years, and others continue indefinitely.
Q: What do I need to do to be included in the Settlement?
Members of the Settlement Class do not need to do anything with respect to the Settlement in this Action.
Q: How will the lawyers be paid?
At the Final Fairness Hearing on January 16, 2018, the Court considered Class Counsel's motion for an award of attorneys' fees, expenses, and incentive awards for Named Plaintiffs, not to exceed $2.25 million in total. The Court granted Class Counsel's motion and awarded attorneys' fees in the amount of $2,178,165.54; reimbursement of expenses in the amount of $41,834.46; and incentive awards to the three Named Plaintiffs in the amount of $10,000 each.
Q: Can I exclude myself from the Settlement?
You do not have the right to exclude yourself from this Settlement. The Court has certified a non-opt out class under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(1) and/or (b)(2). This means that it is not possible for any members of the Settlement Class to be excluded from this Settlement. As a member of the Settlement Class, you will be bound by any judgments or orders that are entered in the Action for all claims that were or could have been asserted in the Action against the Defendants or are otherwise included in the release under the Settlement.
For inquiries about this Settlement, please email WheatonFranciscanSettlement@cohenmilstein.com. You may also contact Class Counsel at 1-888-238-2105 if you have questions or comments.
Please do not contact the Court. Its personnel will not be able to answer your questions.