Leave It to a Non-Lawyer to Cut Through the Fog (Or What Amara Actually Means)

Ran into John Lowell, who writes the Benefits and Compensation with John Lowell blog, the other evening, and we discussed his post on Cigna v. Amara, in which he referenced the fact that no one really knows for certain what the decision will mean in the long run, but he had never seen so many lawyers take pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – so quickly as in response to that decision. Personally, I attribute it to pent up demand, in that many lawyers, myself included, have been watching for that decision for a long time, and had expected it by now; as a result, many were primed to jump right into the fray as soon as it was issued.

John is right though, that what the case means from any sort of a macro level (as opposed to its precise impact on the litigants in that exact case) is solely in the eye of the beholder at this point. The lawyers at Steptoe and Johnson in D.C. say the same thing as John, only with more legalese, commenting that “the Supreme Court’s recent decision in CIGNA Corporation v. Amara, 563 U.S. ____ (5/16/11), may revolutionize the way that employee benefit plans are drafted and the ability of plan participants to overturn provisions that they object to; or it may turn out to be the articulation of theories that have no practical impact.”

And in that is the thing, because the devil here, as in most things, is in the details. There is language and analysis in Amara that is fascinating if, as John noted, you are an ERISA lawyer who likes to wax poetic about the latest doctrinal changes and trends (guilty as charged on this end, to some extent). In fact, I think a young law professor looking to build a career could probably mine aspects of this decision for three or four major papers (feel free to email me and I will give you the topics). The technical lawyering questions about the role of the equitable relief prong addressed in the opinion raise a number of questions, and the difference in jurisprudential philosophy represented by the split between the majority opinion and the concurrence is good for an article or two.

But at the end of the day, we won’t know what the case really means in the long run until courtroom lawyers start applying it to actual facts in a case, and lower courts, and then higher courts, explain how the ideas set forth in Amara interact with those facts. It is when we have a critical mass of cases in which that occurs, and not till then, that we will finally have an answer to the million-dollar question that John posed: namely, why exactly does the case matter.