CIGNA Corp. v. Amara et al.
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OCTOBER TERM, 2010
CIGNA CORP. V. AMARA
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CIGNA CORP. et al. v. AMARA et al., individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit
No. 09–804. Argued November 30, 2010—Decided May 16, 2011
Until 1998, petitioner CIGNA Corporation’s pension plan provided a retiring employee with an annuity based on preretirement salary and length of service. Its new plan replaced that annuity with a cash balance based on a defined annual contribution from CIGNA, increased by compound interest. The new plan translated already-earned benefits under the old plan into an opening amount in the cash balance account. Respondents, on behalf of beneficiaries of the CIGNA Pension Plan (also a petitioner), challenged the new plan’s adoption, claiming, as relevant here, that CIGNA’s notice of the changes was improper, particularly because the new plan in certain respects provided them with less generous benefits. The District Court found that CIGNA’s disclosures violated its obligations under §§102(a), 104(b), and 204(h) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). In determining relief, it found that CIGNA’s notice defects had caused the employees “likely harm.” It then reformed the new plan and ordered CIGNA to pay benefits accordingly, finding its authority in ERISA §502(a)(1)(B), which authorizes a plan “participant or beneficiary” to bring a “civil action” to “recover benefits due … under the terms of his plan.” The Second Circuit affirmed.
1. Although §502(a)(1)(B) did not give the District Court authority to reform CIGNA’s plan, relief is authorized by §502(a)(3), which allows a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary “to obtain other appropriate equitable relief” to redress violations of ERISA “or the [plan’s] terms.” Pp. 12–20.
(a) The court ordered relief in two steps. Step 1: It ordered the terms of the plan reformed. Step 2: It ordered CIGNA to enforce the plan as reformed. Step 2 orders recovery of the benefits provided by the “terms of [the reformed] plan” and is thus consistent with §502(a)(1)(B). However, that provision—which speaks of “enforc[ing]” the plan’s terms, not changing them—does not suggest that it authorizes a court to alter those terms here, where the change, akin to reforming a contract, seems less like the simple enforcement of a contract as written and more like an equitable remedy. Nor can the Court accept the Solicitor General’s alternative rationale: that the District Court enforced the summary plan descriptions and that they are plan terms. That reading cannot be squared with ERISA §102(a), which obliges plan administrators to furnish summary plan descriptions, but does not suggest that information about the plan provided by those disclosures is itself part of the plan. Nothing in §502(a)(1)(B) suggests the contrary. The Solicitor General’s reading also cannot be squared with the statute’s division of authority between a plan’s sponsor—who, like a trust’s settlor, creates the plan’s basic terms and conditions, executes a written instrument containing those terms and conditions, and provides in that instrument a procedure for making amendments—and the plan’s administrator—a trustee-like fiduciary who manages the plan, follows its terms in doing so, and provides participants with the summary plan descriptions. ERISA carefully distinguishes these roles, and there is no reason to believe that the statute intends to mix the responsibilities by giving the administrator the power to set plan terms indirectly in the summaries, even when, as here, the administrator is also the plan sponsor. Finally, it is difficult to reconcile an interpretation that would make a summary’s language legally binding with the basic summary plan description objective of clear, simple communication. Pp. 12–15.
(b) This Court has interpreted §502(a)(3)’s phrase “appropriate equitable relief” as referring to “ ‘those categories of relief ’ ” that, before the merger of law and equity,“ ‘were typically available in equity.’ ” Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., 547 U. S. 356, 361. This case—concerning a beneficiary’s suit against a plan fiduciary (whom ERISA typically treats as a trustee) about the terms of a plan (which ERISA typically treats as a trust)—is the kind of lawsuit that, before the merger, could have been brought only in an equity court, where the remedies available were traditionally considered equitable remedies. The District Court’s injunctions obviously fall within this category. The other relief it ordered closely resembles three forms of traditional equitable relief. First, what the court did here may be regarded as the reformation of the plan’s terms, in order to remedy false or misleading information CIGNA provided. The power to reform contracts is a traditional power of an equity court and is used to prevent fraud. Second, the part of the remedy holding CIGNA to its promise that the new plan would not take from its employees previously accrued benefits resembles estoppel, also a traditional equitable remedy. Third, the injunctions require the plan administrator to pay already retired beneficiaries money owed them under the plan as reformed. Equity courts possessed the power to provide monetary “compensation” for a loss resulting from a trustee’s breach of duty, or to prevent the trustee’s unjust enrichment. That surcharge remedy extended to a breach of trust committed by a fiduciary encompassing any violation of duty imposed on that fiduciary. Pp. 16–20.
2. Because §502(a)(3) authorizes “appropriate equitable relief” for violations of ERISA, the relevant standard of harm will depend on the equitable theory by which the District Court provides relief. That court is to conduct the analysis in the first instance, but there are several equitable principles that it might apply on remand. Neither ERISA’s relevant substantive provisions nor §502(a)(3) sets a particular standard for determining harm. And equity law provides no general principle that “detrimental reliance” must be proved before a remedy is decreed. To the extent any such requirement arises, it is because the specific remedy being contemplated imposes that requirement. Thus, when a court exercises authority under §502(a)(3) to impose a remedy equivalent to estoppel, a showing of detrimental reliance must be made. However, equity courts did not insist on a detrimental reliance showing where they ordered reformation where a fraudulent suppression, omission, or insertion materially affected the substance of a contract. Nor did they require a detrimental reliance showing when they ordered surcharge. They simply ordered a trust or beneficiary made whole following a trustee’s breach of trust. This flexible approach belies a strict detrimental reliance requirement. To be sure, a fiduciary can be surcharged under §502(a)(3) only upon a showing of actual harm, and such harm may consist of detrimental reliance. But it might also come from the loss of a right protected by ERISA or its trust-law antecedents. It is not difficult to imagine how the failure to provide proper summary information here, in violation of ERISA, injured employees even if they did not themselves act in reliance on the summaries. Thus, to obtain relief by surcharge for violations of §§102(a) and 104(b), a plan participant or beneficiary must show that the violation caused injury, but need show only actual harm and causation, not detrimental reliance. Pp. 20–22.
348 Fed. Appx. 627, vacated and remanded.
Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined. Sotomayor, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.