Burton v. Colorado Access & No.Annotate this Case
Caroline Burton and Brenda Olivar submitted claims for long-term disability benefits to insurance companies under employee-benefits plans set up by their employers (“the Plans”). The insurance companies denied Burton’s and Olivar’s claims. Burton and Olivar sued the Plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) for benefits due to them under the insurance policies. But neither served the Plans. Rather, they each served complaints on the United States Department of Labor Secretary, relying on an ERISA provision allowing such service when a plan hasn’t designated “an individual” as an agent for service of process. In both cases, the Labor Secretary never forwarded the complaint to the Plans’ designated agents for service of process, the Plans failed to answer, and Burton and Olivar obtained default judgments in their favor. Eventually, the Plans moved to set aside the default judgments for improper service, which the trial courts granted in both cases. Later, the Plans moved for summary judgment, arguing the insurers, which were obligated to make all eligibility determinations and payments under the Plans’ terms, were the only proper party defendants. The trial courts agreed, granting the Plans summary judgment. A division of the court of appeals affirmed. The issue presented to the Colorado Supreme Court for resolution centered on whether ERISA’s use of the term “individual” provided that service on the Labor Secretary was sufficient when a plan designates a corporation (instead of a natural person) as its administrator and agent for service of process. Finding no reversible error in the district court’s judgment, the Supreme Court affirmed.