ERISA-A Word On Summary Plan Descriptions In Cigna Corporation v. Amara

Further to yesterday’s blog, the Supreme Court came to an interesting conclusion on summary plan descriptions in Cigna Corporation v. Amara (5/16/11). It said that “we conclude that the summary documents, important as they are, provide communications with beneficiaries about the plan, but that their statements do not themselves constitute the terms of the plan for purposes of §502(a)(1)(B) [of ERISA]”. This conclusion meant that the summary plan descriptions could not supply terms that would be the basis for benefits that a court could award under §502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA.

However, the statement appears to contradict a number of cases, which said or indicated that a summary plan description is a “plan document” which can be the source of plan terms, or that the terms appearing in a summary plan description will apply instead of inconsistent terms appearing in the official plan document, when the summary plan description’s terms are more favorable to participants than those in the official document. It remains to be seen what the courts will now do, as far as using a summary plan description to interpret or apply a plan.

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