Some More Thoughts on the Primacy of the ERISA Plan Document

Judge Gertner of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has an interesting, if brief, ruling that is just out granting a motion to dismiss a severance pay claim under an ERISA governed plan. What caught my eye about it relates back to this post I wrote a few weeks ago, in which I pointed out the need, in litigation planning and counseling concerning ERISA plans, to resist putting undue emphasis on representations that are inconsistent with the actual terms of a plan, because the courts are likely to ignore such statements and to instead simply enforce what is written in the plan documents. The court’s opinion is another example of the trend in the case law in this direction. Although the court was not delving too deeply into this particular issue, the court noted that “in more recent cases, the First Circuit has held that courts should not look beyond the express terms of an ERISA-regulated plan unless the disputed term is ambiguous,” and that “[i]n ERISA cases . . . the central issue must always be what the plan promised . . . and whether the plan delivered." As I said before, any litigation strategy for an ERISA benefits case has to start with the terms of the plan, and not with extrinsic statements or evidence related to the plan’s terms or interpretation. The case is Walsh v. Bank of America Corporate Severance Program.
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