ERISA-District Court Uses Language in SPD To Identify The Plan Administrator, Despite Supreme Court’s Decision In Amara

In Cone v. Walmart Stores, Inc. Associates’ Health and Welfare Plan, Civil Action No. 7:12-cv-29 (HL) (M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division, May 30, 2012), the court needed to identify the plan administrator of an employee benefits plan. The plaintiffs had filed a claim for statutory penalties under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(c). Section 1132(c) provides for penalties against a plan administrator if the administrator fails to supply requested information to ERISA participants within a certain period of time. Thus, the identity of the plan administrator is central to the outcome of the claim under § 1132(c).

The court noted that, under ERISA (specifically in 29 U.S.C. § 1002(16)(A)) the plan administrator is defined as:

(i) the person specifically so designated by the terms of the instrument under which the plan is operated;
(ii) if an administrator is not so designated, the plan sponsor; or (iii) in the case of a plan for which an administrator is not designated and a plan sponsor cannot be identified, such other person as the Secretary may by regulation prescribe.

Here, the plaintiffs had argued that no person or entity is specifically designated by the terms of the plan instrument as the plan administrator, and thus, according to clause (ii) above, Walmart-the plan sponsor-should be treated as the plan administrator. The Court disagreed. It said that, according to clause (i) above, the plan administrator must be named in “the terms of the instrument under which the plan is operated.” The plaintiffs had contended that this phrase refers only to the formal policy issued to plan participants. However, the Court said that the plan instrument includes more than the formal policy. Without explicitly naming all of the documents that should be considered part of the plan instrument, it is sufficient to say in this case that the Summary Plan Description (“SPD”), a document required under ERISA that informs plan participants of their rights and obligations in an easily understandable way, should be considered part of the plan instrument. In this case, the SPD identifies the plan administrator as being the “Walmart Administrative Committee Associates’ Health and Welfare Plan.” As such, the Court concluded that this plan-a named defendant-is the plan administrator.

Note: This case seems to be at odds with the Supreme Court’s decision in CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866 (2011), which indicated that the terms of an SPD cannot be treated as the terms of the plan (or, as here, the instrument in question).The Court did not mention Amara.

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