:: Plan Administrators Cannot Invoke “SPD Prevails” Rule To Cure Plan Language Deficiencies

Here, there are no terms in the plan which allow it to be amended by inserting into the SPD such critical provisions as the administrator’s discretionary authority to interpret the plan or to determine eligibility for benefits. Indeed, this particular plan wholly fails to comply with § 1102(b)(3)’s requirement to include a procedure governing amendment of the plan.

Thus, there is no basis for concluding that the purported grant of discretion in the SPD is a procedurally proper amendment of the policy, and therefore “the policy’s failure to grant discretion results in the default de novo standard.” Jobe, 598 F.3d at 486. “Consequently, the district court should not have reviewed the administrator’s decision for abuse of discretion but, rather, should have reviewed it de novo.” Id.

Ringwald v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. (8th Cir.) (06/21/10)

It is not unusual to see plan documents and summary plan descriptions merged into one document these days, or for summary plan descriptions to take on the role as the source of authority and documentation of administrative practices.   This recent Eighth Circuit opinion should give plan fiduciaries pause as they delegate such paperwork to their claims administrators and benefit communications consultants.

Here, the question was whether the plan granted discretionary authority to the plan administrator so as to invoke the benefit of an abuse of discretion standard of review.  The answer – the summary plan description did, but the plan document did not.  And therefore, a de novo standard of review applied.

Some of you may be saying, but I thought the summary plan description controlled in the case of a conflict between the plan and the SPD?   The Eighth Circuit observes that this rule of “SPD prevails” only applies where necessary to protect the plan participants.

the policy underlying the “SPD prevails” rule was ERISA’s important goal of providing complete disclosure to plan participants, such that where disclosures made in an SPD pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1022(a)(1) . . .  ERISA’s policy of full disclosure – inuring to the benefit of employees, not employers – would not be advanced by a blanket rule indicating an SPD “prevails over the policy in all circumstances.”

Thus, the door opens for the plan participant to introduce the plan document as a means of impeaching the SPD.   ERISA forbids a plan administrator from using the SPD “to enlarge the rights of the plan administrator at the expense of plan participants when the plan itself does not confer those rights.”

Note: This case does not address the combination of the plan and the SPD into one document.   It does illustrate, however, the risks incurred when plan administrators deviate from ERISA’s documentary scheme.

ERISA contemplates plan documents which control many important legal matters, such as allocation of fiduciary responsibilities, specification of amendment procedures, eligibility, participation and claims adjudication rules.  ERISA further contemplates an SPD or SMM that put these matters in the vernacular for the plan participants.

In view of Ringwald, if important language fails to appear in the plan document, such as a grant of discretion, the SPD cannot cure this deficiency. Plan fiduciaries should review and compare the plan language on this issue as well as other important issues, such as ERISA subrogation and reimbursement rights, to ensure consistency in plan documentation.