SPD: The Plan Document Strikes Back

When I first started as an ERISA attorney in 1998, I was privileged to have worked for an ERISA attorney by the name of Harvey Berman. While Harvey was the easiest going boss I ever worked for (I wish I knew it then and appreciate him more), the biggest influence on my career in my work product was a paralegal named Marge.

Marge went farther back in the retirement plan business than ERISA and her caustic style rubbed me the wrong way initially and I only appreciated her years after she retired.

One f the things that I remember Marge telling me was that you have to especially be careful when drafting summary plan descriptions (SPDs) because if there is a discrepancy between the SPD and the plan document, courts will hold that the SPD controls because that is what the plan participants received. It’s a rule that I always followed.

Just in the past few weeks, the Supreme Court in Cigna Corp. v. Amara ruled that SPDs are not as legall binding as a plan document. “To make the language of a plan summary legally binding could well lead plan administrators to sacrifice simplicity and comprehensibility in order to describe plan terms in the language of lawyers,” Justice Stephen Breyer writes in the opinion for the court. “Consider the difference between a will and the summary of a will or between a property deed and its summary. … None of this is to say that plan administrators can avoid providing complete and accurate summaries of plan terms in the manner required by ERISA and its implementing regulations.” In English, plan sponsors aren’t off the hook from providing accurate SPDs, but the plan document is the legally binding document.

The beauty of this retirement plan business for me is that I learn something new everyday, just like I did when I worked with Marge.

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One Response to SPD: The Plan Document Strikes Back

  1. In the Miami area, where we have a complexity of nationalities and ethnicities, SPD’s are done in Spanish, Creole and on rare occasion, in Yiddish (haven’t done one of those in 4 or 5 years), Then we get complaints from Colombians that we are using Cuban Spanish which they refer to as gutter Spanish. Sometimes you can’t win regardless of how hard you try.

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