Top Hat Plans and ERISA

One of the most interesting and potentially influential of the ERISA decisions rendered by the courts in the First Circuit during the holiday season that just closed is Eben Alexander v Brigham and Women’s Physician Organization, in which the court issued its findings, after a trial, on whether two particular deferred compensation plans for highly compensated surgeons qualified as top hat plans which are exempt from certain restrictions and controls imposed by ERISA. The plaintiff, a neurosurgeon, had his balance in the plans reduced to account for certain practice expenses, as allowed under the terms of the two plans, but which could only be appropriate if the plans were top hat plans; otherwise, the reductions would violate ERISA. After a trial, the court explained in detail why the evidence added up to a finding that the plans were top hat plans, thus defeating the plaintiff’s claims. What is particularly noteworthy, and which puts the case in position to influence other courts’ decisions concerning top hat plans in the future, is the court’s detailed analysis of the case law and statutory provisions governing the issue and of how that law should be applied to the type of detailed fact finding relied upon by the court.

And as an added bonus, if you are of any sort of a voyeur, the case has the added benefit of opening up a window into just how much money is earned by so called “highly compensated” (for purposes of analyzing whether or not a plan is a top hat plan) surgeons at prominent Boston medical institutions.