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Bartleby Lives: Ct. Finds $1.67B Attorney's Typo Can Be Fixed

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on August 12, 2010 7:17 AM

Attorneys with iffy typing skills or bad drafting habits throughout the nation (or at least throughout the 7th Circuit) are drawing a sigh of relief today. On August 10, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that everyone makes mistakes -- and some shouldn't cost your client $1.67 billion dollars.

The court found in favor of Verizon Wirless and will allow the company to correct a mistake in a 1996 pension plan that it inherited from its predecessor, Bell Atlantic, according to Reuters. The court upheld the decision of the district court finding the company should not be held liable for the "scrivener's error."

According to Reuters, Bell Atlantic, during the process of changing about 13,800 participants from one plan to another, accidentally included a multiplier connecting to the ages and years of service for the employees, twice. This had the effect of greatly increasing the starting pension balances for thousands of employees, sometimes by as much as three times their original amount.

It should come as no surprise that the affected workers sued, hoping to hold the company to the actual language in the pension. Much like bank customers who suddenly find more in their accounts than expected thanks to an error, lead plaintiff Cynthia Young and the class were reluctant to release the benefits they felt were contracted for.

Under ERISA law, the court found the in-house lawyer's scrivener's error should be correctable where there is clear and convincing evidence that the plan does not reflect the party's "reasonable expectations." "People make mistakes. Even administrators of ERISA plans," Judge John Daniel Tinder wrote kindly, in the Opinion of the three-judge panel.

Plaintiffs' attorney Matthew Hurst, a partner at Susman Heffner & Hurst LLP, told Reuters the federal courts are divided on the issue. "This split should be resolved so that both participants and sponsors know what relief is available," Hurst said.

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