Is the Supreme Court Setting Out To Alter the Law of ERISA?

Conventional wisdom holds that the Supreme Court set out last term to change the direction of patent law, and did so. Are they out to do the same thing now with the law of ERISA? I think so. They already have LaRue up on their plate, a case I have said will result in a reversal of the circuit court and an expansion of plan participants’ ability to avoid some of the procedural hurdles to filing suit, and on Monday SCOTUSBLOG reported that: 

Among 85 pages of orders [issued by the Supreme Court] on pending cases, the Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General for the federal government’s views on four cases [including]:
06-1398, AT&T Pension Benefit Plan v. Call, an ERISA benefits case involving a split in the Circuit Courts over the question of deference to a benefit plan administrator’s interpretation of the plan.
06-1458, Geddes v. United Staffing Alliance, another ERISA case involving a conflict among federal Circuit Courts over the standard for judging denials of medical benefits by plan administrators.

Workplace Prof, reporting on these same developments, gives a little more detail about the two cases, describing the AT&T case as involving “whether an employer is entitled to deference for its determination that the actuarial assumptions it used to calculate lump-sum distributions were not considered accrued benefits” and the Geddes case as concerning “whether a nondiscretionary standard of review applies in an ERISA action when the benefit plan administrator delegates its discretionary authority to someone who is not a fiduciary.” As the Prof points out, the Court’s request to the Solicitor General’s office for input does not necessarily mean the Court will take the cases, but certainly raises the possibility that it will; at a minimum, it reflects the interest of at least some segment of the Court in how the law governing ERISA is evolving.

Regular readers of this blog and ERISA practitioners know that there has been a fair amount of discontent at the district court and circuit court levels when it comes to the issue of standards of review and the discretion granted to administrators, including a decision out of the Ninth Circuit that I described awhile back as looking as though it had been written for the express purpose of bringing conflict among the circuits over some of these issues to the direct attention of the Supreme Court. The Court may be about ready to start delving into these issues and concerns.

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