Employment LawScene Alert: Eighth Circuit Holds that an SPD Can Function as a Plan Document

A federal appellate court has ruled, in MBI Energy Services v. Hoch, decided in July 2019, that a single document may serve as both the summary plan description (SPD) and the formal plan document for an ERISA welfare benefit plan.

In this case, the plan sponsor of a self-insured group health plan paid benefits on behalf of a participant for medical injuries sustained in an accident. Subsequently, the participant settled a tort claim with a third party who allegedly caused the accident. The settlement amount exceeded the amount of the plan-paid medical expenses and the plan sponsor sought reimbursement.

ERISA Requires a Plan Document

Under ERISA, the requirement that “every employee benefit shall be established and maintained pursuant to a written instrument” is understood to mean that the terms of each benefit program must be memorialized in a written plan document. ERISA further requires the plan sponsor to provide to each plan participant an SPD that briefly and clearly summarizes the terms of the plan document.

In some cases, plan sponsors do not offer two separate documents (a plan document and an SPD), but rely, instead, on a single combined document that purports to function both as the plan document and as the SPD.

Several courts have argued that a combined Plan document and SPD is unacceptable on the grounds that it is not possible for a document to summarize itself. Nonetheless, in the self-insured medical plan context (where coverage exclusions and limitations are difficult to summarize), it is common to have a single document that serves as both the plan document and the SPD.

Where’s the Plan?

While the employer in the MBI Energy Services case could point to no document clearly identified as the “plan,” there was an administrative services agreement (ASA) between the employer and the plan’s claims administrator indicating that the plan benefits, terms, and conditions were set forth in an attached exhibited – the SPD. Along with the benefit provisions and ERISA-mandated language, the SPD contained sections addressing the rights of subrogation, reimbursement, and assignment. The SPD stated, in part, that if a participant “makes any recovery from a third party . . . whether by judgment, settlement or otherwise,” the participant must reimburse the plan sponsor “to the full extent of any benefits paid” by the plan.

            The Arguments
The participant argued that the SPD was not a valid plan document and that the employer therefore had no right to reimbursement. Instead, the participant asserted that the SPD was only a summary of, and in conflict with the terms of, the ASA, which the participant contended was the controlling plan document. The participant’s argument was rooted in the Supreme Court’s reasoning, in its 2011 CIGNA v. Amara ruling, that “’summary documents, important as they are, provide communication with beneficiaries about the plan, but that their statements do not themselves constitute the terms of the plan.”

The plan sponsor, on the other hand, argued that the SPD functioned as both the SPD and the plan document and that the SPD’s reimbursement language gave the plan an equitable lien on the participant’s recovery proceeds.

            The Ruling
The Eighth Circuit disagreed with the participant’s contention that the SPD was unenforceable because it conflicted with the ASA, pointing out that the ASA was silent as to reimbursement and expressly incorporated the terms and conditions of the SPD. The court thereby joined other circuits in distinguishing CIGNA v. Amara (a retirement plan matter in which both a plan document and an SPD were present) and concluding that, absent a formal plan document, the SPD may function as the plan document.

Specifically, the court rejected as “nonsensical” any interpretation that renders no plan document at all under the terms of ERISA and concluded that the label of SPD is not dispositive. Where no other source of benefits exists, the SPD is the formal plan document.

The court also pointed out that it would be inequitable to allow the participant to receive benefits according to the SPD but not hold him to the reimbursement responsibilities set forth in that same document. It concluded that, since the SPD was the plan’s written instrument, the participant was bound by its terms and obligated to reimburse the plan.

As a result, the participant was required to reimburse the self-funded employee benefit plan for $45,474 in medical benefits the plan had paid.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s CIGNA v. Amara ruling, plan sponsors of self-insured plans have wondered whether the common practice of using a single document as both the plan and the SPD may permissibly continue. The Eighth Circuit’s MBI Energy Services ruling adds to a growing list of cases finding that an SPD can function as an enforceable ERISA welfare plan document in the absence of a separate additional document.

Plan sponsors should take note that identifying the controlling language relevant to a given employee benefit plan is not always clear cut. In some cases (as here), the plans terms may be contained within a single document. In other instances, the terms of an ERISA plan may be inferred from a series of documents, none of which is clearly labeled as a plan.

Do your Plan’s Documents Protect You?
All plan sponsors are advised to review whether their documents for ERISA welfare plans (such as group health, dental, vision, disability, and life plans) not only comply with ERISA, but also whether they reflect the employer-specific disclosure requirements and employer-protective statements, which are typically not included in documents prepared by insurers or third-party administrators.

In many cases, it is advisable to streamline multiple separate ERISA benefits into a single so-called Wrap Plan document, which ‘wraps around’ and supplements the other documents to become the SPD. A Wrap Plan can help employers to minimize the risk of financial penalties and lawsuits and streamlines certain reporting and amendment requirements.

The attorneys of the Employment Law Group of O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman, DeJong & Laing can assist in reviewing and providing counsel relating to the documentation and operation of all employer-sponsored employee benefit and compensation plans.

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