Summary Plan Descriptions and Grants of Discretion

Here is an interesting post concerning a recent decision from the Second Circuit on the impact - there is apparently none in that circuit, given this post and the Second Circuit decision, Tocker v. Phillip Morris Companies, discussed in the post - of an administrator reserving discretion in determining claims for benefits only in the plan documents and not in the summary plan description itself.

Now I don’t necessarily agree with the writer of the post, who feels that if a participant cannot locate in the summary plan description the magical Firestone language that reserves discretion to the administrator, then de novo and not arbitrary and capricious review should apply. The writer’s view is that the summary exists to educate the participant, and the participant ought to be able to rely on it and find the reservation of discretion there, or else not have it applied against him or her. Personally, I favor a more realpolitik view of the world when it comes to establishing litigation rules, based on how we can expect people in the real world to act. Most participants, frankly, unless they have been educated about Firestone, discretionary language and standard of reviews by some other source, will have no idea what the Firestone language means or its effect, even if they find it in the summary plan description; for those who have been or choose to educate themselves sufficiently to understand that issue under the employee benefit plans provided by their employers, they will likewise understand that there are other sources of documents that they need to examine that govern the plan. The Second Circuit ruling in Tocker seems to fit that understanding of the real world quite well.

And some of this goes back to a fundamental issue, of whether participants really understand - or even read - the summary plan description, or whether it is instead simply something that gets pulled out by a participant’s lawyer after a claim for benefits has been denied. The summaries exist because we need to mandate disclosure, and certainly the more the better - but I don’t think it is realistic to structure a legal rule and indeed an entire regime around the myth that participants actually do read them, rely on them and understand them. When we do that, we move into simply creating traps that make the administration of plans more difficult and create loopholes to be exploited in litigation; while this may be good for lawyers’ wallets, I think we are all better served by legal rules that fit comfortably with how non-lawyers actually conduct themselves in their day to day lives.

On a more practical and technical level, the Tocker opinion provides an excellent overview of the law governing summary plan descriptions, and the role of those documents in the ERISA regime, for those of you interested in more information on those subjects.
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