Oral argument: Nov. 30, 2010
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Oct. 6, 2009)
ERISA, STANDARD OF INJURY, LIKELY HARM, CASH BALANCE PLAN, SUMMARY PLAN DESCRIPTION
CIGNA Corporation changed its employee retirement plan from a traditional defined benefits plan to a cash balance plan. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), companies that change their retirement plan must release a summary plan description (“SPD”) that outlines the changes for employees in a manner that the average employee can understand. CIGNA released an SPD that described the change but did not mention a “wear-away” period during which the enrolled employees would continue earning credits under the plan while their minimum benefit would remain the same for a period of time. The Respondents, current and former CIGNA employees, sued in federal court, alleging that the inconsistency between the SPD and the actual benefit plan violated ERISA. The district court found for the plaintiffs, using a standard of “likely harm” to determine whether the employees were harmed by the inconsistency between the SPD and the original plan, and the Second Circuit affirmed. CIGNA appealed, arguing that a showing of “detrimental reliance” on the part of the employees is required before they can receive a remedy. The Court’s decision will likely affect the contents of SPDs and the availability of pension benefit plan class actions.