United States: The Supreme Court's New Church Plan Cases — How They Might Affect ERISA Litigation Generally

Last Updated: January 6 2017
Article by Mark Casciari and Christopher Busey

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court's grant of certiorari in three Church Plan cases presents the possibility that many Church Plans thought for years to be exempt from ERISA rules, including its funding rules, will now have to comply with the statute. It also presents a possible issue of Article III standing — even though not part of the issue on which the Court granted certiorari — whether some of the plaintiffs are unable to sue in federal court because they allege the risk of an injury in the future, but not a concrete injury at present.

It has been widely reported that the Supreme Court soon could require over $1 billion in new defined benefit plan funding with the stroke of a pen when it decides whether Church Plans thought for years to be exempt from ERISA funding rules are really not exempt.  The three Courts of Appeal opinions now being reviewed by the Court are: Rollins v. Dignity Health, 830 F.3d 900 (9th Cir. July 26, 2016); Stapleton v. Advocate Health Care Network, 817 F.3d 517 (7th Cir. Mar. 17, 2016); and Kaplan v. St. Peters Healthcare System, 810 F.3d 175 (3d Cir. Dec. 29, 2015). In each of these cases, employees of the hospital systems alleged that the pension plans maintained by their employers were misclassified as ERISA-exempt.

We have been monitoring developments in these cases (see our previous blog posts here and here), and now the Supreme Court's decision to review the Rollins, Stapleton, and Kaplan opinions presents the possibility of a nationwide reclassification of many Church Plans, with enormous consequences, especially in the funding context. The funding consequences arise because ERISA funding rules are more exacting than the funding standards under which the plans at issue have been governed.

The Supreme Court will consider a question of statutory interpretation. ERISA Section 3(33)(A) defines an exempt Church Plan as one established and maintained "by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax." The issue becomes whether ERISA's church-plan exemption applies if a plan is maintained by a tax-qualifying church-affiliated organization, or if the exemption applies only where a church established the plan. Each of the Courts of Appeal under review declined to defer to the IRS's opinion–expressed in a 1983 memorandum from the IRS General Counsel–that Church Plans include those maintained by a church-affiliated organization regardless of the identity of the entity that established the plan. The Supreme Court's question presented explicitly references, as well, the 30-plus-year history of Church Plan classifications by the federal Department of Labor and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that correspond to that of the IRS.

One sleeping issue in these cases may have implications for ERISA litigation generally. The Court's Church Plan decision may intersect with its recent decision in Spokeo Inc. v. Robbins, 136 S.Ct. 1540 (2016). Spokeo dealt with the U.S. Constitution's Article III standing precondition to any federal lawsuit, and said that a plaintiff must allege a "concrete injury" to bring suit (see here and here for additional background). The plaintiffs in the Church Plan cases under review allege a number of ERISA violations that have occurred as a result of a possible misclassification of their pension plans. These include that the plans failed to meet ERISA's funding, fiduciary and reporting and disclosure requirements. To be sure, some plaintiffs also allege a clearly concrete injury — for example, an actual loss of benefits due to the plan's vesting schedule that fails to meet ERISA minimums. But under Spokeo, it is unclear if alleged funding, fiduciary and reporting and disclosure "injuries," in the absence of a specific, personal harm, or non-speculative risk of harm, would pass muster as sufficiently concrete. Although the Supreme Court did not request briefing on the Article III issue, it may address a lack of Article III standing, as a question of subject matter jurisdiction may arise at any point in federal litigation. ERISA litigators should read the coming Church Plan decision to see if it contains an Article III analysis that has implications beyond the Church Plan context. If it does not, litigators nonetheless should be aware that the last word on the intersection of Spokeo and ERISA will not yet be written.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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