Criminal Restitution, Alienation of Retirement Benefits and the Supreme Court

We return, as promised, to America today, to two particular, but certainly not unique, American obsessions, the Supreme Court and criminals. As discussed here and here, the Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal presenting the question of whether pension and retirement benefits governed by ERISA can be attached in the criminal context. As I discussed in this post, in at least some instances courts are finding that retirement funds can be attached as part of the penalty for criminal conduct, including to pay criminal restitution.

It is interesting - although there is probably nothing more to read into it other than that the Court agreed with the Solicitor General’s office that there was no circuit split warranting review of the precise issue presented by the particular case at issue - that the Supreme Court passed on this one, as they have taken on a fair number of ERISA cases, most recently accepting the LaRue case, which I discussed here and here, and which presents questions as to whether or not a single plan participant can sue for breach of fiduciary duty. And just a short time ago the Court reached out to address questions related to mergers and terminations of pension plans, as discussed here.

But I guess the question of whether or not criminals lose any protection provided by ERISA to their retirement benefits as a result of conviction doesn’t rate as high as those other issues on the Court’s agenda. And perhaps it shouldn’t. That’s an issue for another day, and one I will not voyage into today. But it is important to remember, however, that, as I discussed in a National Law Journal article a few months ago concerning one circuit that does allow attachment of a felon’s retirement benefits, alienating retirement benefits doesn’t necessarily punish only the wrongdoer, but may well seriously impoverish possibly innocent spouses, who may have expected to rely on those funds in retirement, and adult children, who may end up with no choice but to subsidize the so-called golden years of that innocent spouse. Of course, it is also fair to say that victims who have suffered financial losses as a result of the criminal conduct may have an equal, or even superior, claim to the funds. Either way, what is clear is that there is plenty of collateral damage to go around in the situation presented by this type of case, enough that it would certainly be worthwhile to at least have an authoritative decision out of the Supreme Court as to whether those courts that do allow attachment of those funds to pay criminal restitution or other similar sums are correct about it or, for that matter, that those jurisdictions who don’t allow it are correct.