Zirbel v. Ford Motor Co., No. 20-1149 (6th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Donna’s former husband, Carl, retired from Ford in 1998 and participated in Ford’s retirement plan. “In the event of an error” in calculating a pension, the plan requires a beneficiary to return the overpayment “without limitation.” A committee runs the plan, with “discretionary authority" to reduce the repayment. Carl and Donna divorced in 2009. Donna received half of the marital portion of Carl’s pension. Donna agreed to postpone drawing the pension. In 2013, Ford offered a lump sum payment in place of future monthly benefits and a $351,690 retroactive payment for the postponed monthly benefits. After paying taxes, Donna invested some of the money and gave some to her children. Ford audited Donna’s benefits. It discovered that the retroactive pension payment mistakenly included benefits from 1998, when Carl retired, instead of 2009. The payment should have been $108,500. Ford requested repayment; the committee invited Donna to apply for a hardship reduction. The application required disclosure of her finances, including her other substantial retirement funds and an inheritance. Donna did not apply; she sued.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Ford. The committee’s actions were neither wrong nor arbitrary. Donna did not establish that Ford’s inclusion of an incorrect retroactive-payment amount constituted constructive fraud. She knew that the retroactive payment was too high when she got it, the plan put her on notice that Ford could demand repayment, and she has the capacity to return the money.