Misrepresentations Under ERISA Plans: Is There A Cause of Action?

Here’s an interesting case out of the First Circuit this week concerning an attempt to use an equitable estoppel theory to force a plan to pay supplemental life insurance benefits even though the former employee covered by the plan had not submitted the necessary health forms to qualify for that coverage. The case, Todisco v. Verizon Communications, involved a situation in which the now deceased employee was supposedly told that he could sign up for the additional life insurance benefits without submitting the necessary health information. The plan administrator refused to pay those benefits after his death because his failure to submit that information precluded such coverage under the terms of the plan.

After much wrangling at the district court (“wrangling” in this context being a euphemism for substantial motion practice), what remained was the plaintiff’s theory that she could recover the benefits on an estoppel theory based on the allegedly misleading statements made to the deceased at the time he elected the benefits. The First Circuit held that the theory failed as a matter of law, however. The Court analyzed the issue under both possible statutory causes of action available to the plaintiff, namely Section 502(a)(1)(B), which “empowers a ‘participant or beneficiary’ to bring suit ‘to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan,’ and Section 502(a)(3), which “allows a ‘participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary’ to sue ‘(A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (I) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan."

The First Circuit held, however, that the plaintiff’s equitable estoppel claim had no home under either statutory section. It found that even though in common parlance equitable estoppel is understood to be an equitable remedy, it did not constitute equitable relief for purposes of ERISA under applicable Supreme Court precedent; for ERISA purposes, equitable relief has a very narrow and specific meaning, and the plaintiff’s attempt to recover compensatory damages only under an estoppel theory did not fit that meaning. The plaintiff’s claim was therefore not actionable as a matter of law under Section 502(a)(3). At the same time, however, the First Circuit found that the relief was not viable as a claim for damages - namely the denied benefits - under Section 502(a)(1)(B), because that section only allows recovery of benefits due under the terms of the plan, and the plaintiff's estoppel theory did not allege that the benefits were due under the actual terms of the plan, but that they were instead due under the terms of the plan as misrepresented to the deceased at the time he sought to obtain the coverage. The Court found that this claim did not fit the express requirements of the statutory provision in question, which limits recovery to benefits when the actual terms of the plan require them to be paid.