Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

Ask and You Shall Receive: ERISA's Remedies for Non-Disclosure

Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

Ask and You Shall Receive: ERISA's Remedies for Non-Disclosure

Article excerpt

ERISA provides members of employer-provided benefit plans the right to request and receive essential documents that pertain to their rights under a plan, whether the plan is a retirement fund, a 401(k) fund, or health or disability insurance. Plan administrators who fail to disclose plan documents upon request are in non-compliance, triggering a private federal cause of action for civil penalties. The failure to recognize the protections granted and duties imposed by ERISA under these sections can lead to unnecessary and even catastrophic consequences for individuals as well as fiduciaries involved in ERISA litigation. This article will highlight the significance of ERISA's procedure for requesting documents and the cause of action this creates for non-compliance by providing an overview of how the federal circuits apply the provisions when awarding statutory penalties and granting other relief. Additionally, this article will argue that ERISA's provision for "other relief" should be considered restitutionary and utilized more broadly by the circuits, as modeled by the Eighth Circuit in Brown v. Aventis.

I. INTRODUCTION

Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), (1) participants and beneficiaries of employer-provided benefit plans (2) have a protected fight in 29 U.S.C. section 1024(b)(4) to receive documents that govern the terms of provided plans. (3) Often these requests are in response to a denial of benefits, (4) a failure to provide pension or retirement funds, (5) or an ERISA lien. (6) If a plan administrator fails to comply with a request for information within thirty days, the participant or beneficiary is provided a private cause of action to enforce the duty in federal court. (7) Plan administrators who fail to disclose requested documents mandated by ERISA may be personally liable for fines and other penalties under 29 U.S.C. section 1132(c)(1)(B). (8)

Because section 1132(c)(1)(B) has been characterized as a basely punitive provision designed to punish non-compliance, (9) plan administrators should be on notice of acts that give rise to statutory penalties. (10) The court has discretion to impose penalties of up to $110.00 a day, (11) as well as "such other relief as it deems proper" for a plan administrator's failure or refusal to disclose documents. (12) As noted by the United States Supreme Court, (13) "[f]aced with the possibility of $100 a day in penalties under [section] 1132(c)(1)(B), a rational plan administrator or fiduciary would likely opt to provide a claimant with the information requested ... especially when the reasonable costs of producing the information can be recovered." (14)

At the same time, when called on to enforce these penalty statutes, courts tend to construe the provisioned language narrowly. (15) For this reason, participants and beneficiaries making requests must take care to adhere to the statutory requirements embodied under section 1024(b)(4) because requests addressed to a person or entity not indicated by statute may be insufficient to trigger the protections granted under ERISA. (16)

Initially, this article will discuss the legislative history behind ERISA, often the backdrop for interpreting disclosure provisions. (17) Next, the statutory request for documents under section 1024(b)(4) will be examined, including an overview of judicial interpretations of mandated elements. (18) Then, this article will explore the federal cause of action granted under section 1132(c)(1)(B) by reviewing aspects of the statute encountered in litigation. (19) Finally, this article will argue for a broader judicial interpretation of the remedies provided under section 1132(c)(1)(B) by analyzing the Eighth Circuit's restitutionary award for non-disclosure in Brown v. Aventis. (20)

II. BACKGROUND

A. ERISA'S LEGISLATIVE HISTORY AND CONGRESSIONAL INTENT

ERISA was enacted in 1974 to protect employee benefit plans for the well-being of employees and their beneficiaries. …

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