ERISA-Eighth Circuit Holds That Surcharge, Reformation And Equitable Estoppel Could Be Available To Remedy The Fiduciary’s Failure To Provide An SPD

In Silva v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, No. 13-2233 (8th Cir. 2014), Abel Silva (“Abel”) died on June 27, 2010. His father, Salvador Silva (“Silva”), sought to recover the benefits of Abel’s life insurance policy (the policy being the “Plan”). The insurer denied Silva’s claim, asserting that Abel did not actually have a policy because he had not provided required paperwork. Silva brought suit against Abel’s employer, Savvis Communications Corporation (“Savvis”), and the insurer and plan fiduciary, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”), under ERISA. The district court denied relief, and Silva appeals.

In analyzing the case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants because it found that Silva was not entitled to benefits under the Plan. Section 1132(a)(1)(B) of ERISA allows Silva to bring a civil action “to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan.” The defendants argue that Silva is not entitled to “recover benefits under the terms of his plan” because the terms of the Plan required Abel to submit evidence of insurability as a late enrollee. Silva argues that § 1132(a)(1)(B) entitles him to benefits owed under the Plan. To succeed, Silva must show that MetLife’s determination that he had not provided “evidence of insurability” was an abuse of discretion (due to its discretion as plan administrator, with somewhat less deference because of conflict as plan administrator and payor). Since it is not clear as to whether there has been an abuse of discretion, the Court reversed the case and remanded Silva’s § 1132(a)(1)(B) claim to the district court for further proceedings.

The Court also faced the question as to whether Silva could add a claim for equitable relief under section 1132(a)(3) of ERISA, based on fiduciary failure to provide a summary plan description (the “SPD”)that explained the Plan’s enrollment procedures. The district court did not allow this addition, finding that the § 1132(a)(3) claim was futile because Silva sought money damages ($429,000 in policy benefits), rather than equitable relief, which the district court concluded was unavailable under that section of the statute. The Court ruled that the failure to provide the SPD was a breach of fiduciary duty. But does this wrong have a remedy? Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Amara, the remedy of surcharge could be available, to provide relief in the form of monetary “compensation” for a loss resulting from a trustee’s breach of duty, or to prevent the trustee’s unjust enrichment. The remedy is available if the plan participant shows harm resulting from the plan administrator’s breach of a fiduciary duty. Since, under the facts alleged, Silva could make such a showing, the Court reversed the district court’s determination that a claim under § 1132(a)(3) against the defendants would be futile. The Court also stated, in remanding the case back to the district court, that the remedies of reformation and equitable estoppel could be available under Amara.

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