Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Supreme Court Rules in Amara v Cigna -- Who Gets the Final Rose?

Back in December, I wrote about a case fashioned as Amara v Cigna. The Supreme Court has ruled. Insomniacs among us may torture themselves with Justice Breyer's opinion and Justice Scalia's concurrence.

For a blogger, this case is interesting in a number of respects:

  • I have never seen so many ERISA attorneys rush to their computers to write about a case.
  • There are some very good reports out there, but my general impression is that what most of those attorneys have chosen to write is even less clear and more torturous than what the Supreme Court wrote.
  • In writings that I have seen, defendant's advocates think that Cigna has won and plaintiff's advocates think that Amara et al have won. Why can't this be more like The Bachelor where one unlucky lady gets a final rose (or some such nonsense) and gets to pretend that they actually love some highly eligible bachelor? On second thought, why is there anything called The Bachelor that I know about?
Those who writhe with pleasure over fine nuances in ERISA are seemingly ecstatic over the Supreme Court's discussions of whether relief might be available under Section 502(a)(1)(B) or Section 502(a)(3). You're excited at the mere thought, aren't you? Oh, you're not ...

To cut to the chase, here is what happened, or at least what this mind not formally trained in the law thinks happened.
  • The lower courts had found that Cigna's pension plan which had been changed from a final average pay plan to a cash balance plan had not been communicated properly through, among other things, the summary plan description (SPD).
  • The lower courts reformed the plan (the actual plan document) to say what they thought it should say based in part upon the language in the SPD.
  • The Supreme Court lambasted Cigna for its conversion and communications, but found that the lower courts had overstepped their bounds.
  • The Supreme Court remanded (people who speak regular English would say sent back) the case to the lower courts for a more appropriate remedy. In doing so, the Supreme Court severely limited the power of the SPD, but appears to have given the lower courts exceptionally broad leeway in their reformation.
  • Advocates for plan sponsors say that they have won because inadvertent miscommunications in SPDs cannot be used to provide unintended windfalls to participants.
  • Advocates for plan participants say that they have won because participants will now surely be entitled to the benefits that the SPD promised them.
And, in the final judgment, at least for now, neither bachelorette (Amara nor Cigna) has gotten the final rose.

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