In Stapleton v. Advocate Health Care Network, No. 15-1368 (7th Cir. 2016), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said that ERISA protects employees from unexpected losses in their retirement plans by setting forth specific safeguards for those plans. ERISA, however, exempts church plans from those requirements. This case explores the question that has been brewing in the lower federal courts: whether a plan established by a church-affiliated organization, such as a hospital, is also exempt from ERISA’s reach. The Court concluded that it is not. Why?
The Court said, as to what constitutes a church plan, that section 3(33) of ERISA requires the plan to be established by a church, as opposed to a church-affiliated organization. The plan in question was established by Advocate, which is possibly a church-affiliated organization offering heath care, but is not actually a church. Therefore, this plan is not a church plan.