Although I am diligent about covering in this blog ERISA decisions coming out of the courts in the First Circuit, I also keep an eye on ERISA decisions elsewhere in the country and discuss them when there is something particularly interesting about them that catches my eye. The Ninth Circuit has just done exactly that, luring me into the realm of the intersection of criminal law and ERISA by its en banc decision in USA v. Novak, and giving me an opportunity to use this blog to make my pitch to any readers in Hollywood for my proposal for a new and thrilling television show, CSI:ERISA. Can’t you just see it? Ripped from the headlines, a husband and wife resell stolen telephone equipment, fail to report the millions of dollars they earn from that to the government on their tax returns, and are caught (these are the real underlying facts of Novak, and that gave rise to the ERISA issue before the court); in tonight’s exciting episode, what happens to their retirement benefits after the conviction? Well, I don’t know, maybe that’s going a bit far, but the Novak decision is pretty interesting, on a few levels.

In Novak, the Ninth Circuit addressed the impact of ERISA’s anti-alienation provision on a federal criminal restitution order that attempted to attach the garnishee’s retirement benefits. Recognizing that ERISA itself contains an anti-alienation provision that would appear to bar such attachment, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996 (“MVRA”) overrode the prohibition and allowed attachment of the retirement benefits for purposes of satisfying criminal restitution orders. There is much that could be said about this opinion, but I’ll limit myself today to a few points.

First, as the court recognized, the two statutes themselves – ERISA and the MVRA – do not expressly resolve the issue of whether, despite the anti-alienation provision in ERISA, retirement benefits can be attached to pay restitution. The court presents a very persuasive and well reasoned exercise in statutory construction to reconcile the two statutes and conclude that the MVRA controls the issue and allows such attachment. To a certain extent, the court provides really a mini-tutorial on the rules underlying statutory interpretation, and the opinion is useful reading for anyone who ever has to argue a case involving construction of a previously unaddressed statutory provision. At the same time, though, the analysis reflects a real problem with trying to reach a final decision over rights and obligations by means of statutory construction, in that there is no real definitive basis in the legislative history or statutory language relied upon by the court that mandates reaching the particular conclusion accepted by the court, and instead one can argue that the opposite result could just as credibly be reached in the case.

Second, and building off of the point that the statutory language itself is not determinative of the proper result here, the court’s analysis and approach rings true, even if the result might be arguable. Conceptually and intellectually, the court’s opinion reminded me of nothing so much as Ronald Dworkin’s mythical Judge Hercules, who, when presented with a particular statute whose meaning is open to debate, sees himself as the next of a series of authors – a series that began with the legislature – and who tries to interpret the statute by adding the necessary additional layers of meaning to it that are needed to effectuate its purposes. The Ninth Circuit’s analysis reads exactly like that, with the court taking a complicated statutory text – two of them, actually, ERISA and the MVRA – and adding more meaning to the statutory text to allow it to deal with this particular fact pattern, one not addressed by the congressional drafters of the statutes.

And third, on a more prosaic basis, it is interesting how the court resolved the question of exactly what could be attached – all the assets of the retirement plan itself that are attributable to the garnishee, or only the payments due to the garnishee as they come due. The court resolved this in a quite sensible manner, concluding that what can be garnished are only those assets the garnishee himself has a current right to receive.