The U.S. Supreme Court, in Cigna Corp. v. Amara, ruled that summary documents that provide communications to participants and beneficiaries—namely, summary plan descriptions (“SPDs”)— are not plan documents or binding contracts and therefore, by themselves, do not constitute the terms of a plan for purposes of Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA. The court found that while SPDs “provide communication with beneficiaries about the plan … their statements do not themselves constitute the terms of the plan for purposes of § 502(a)(1)(B).” As a result, employers, plan sponsors, plan administrators, and other fiduciaries must use extreme caution when relying on terms contained in an SPD and should take steps to assure that all relevant and important plan language is accurately and concretely recorded in the actual plan document.
ERISA section 502(a)(1)(B) allows a court to enforce the terms of a plan. Given the fact that the Amara court found that SPDs do not constitute the terms of a plan, ERISA section 502(a)(1)(B) provides no relief for plaintiffs attempting to enforce language found in SPDs; however, the court did not preclude the availability of remedies for participants and beneficiaries who rely on language contained in a SPD (or other plan communication).
As a consequence of Amara holding that SPDs are not plan documents, employers and plan sponsors must be sure that the plan document itself contains all the terms of the plan—putting language in an SPD is not enough (and under U.S. Supreme Court precedent in McCutchen, such language should be crystal clear). Employers and other plan sponsors should do regular compliance and conformance checks, assuring that the terms outlined in the plan document are accurately reflected in all SPDs and other correspondence materials sent or communicated to plan participants and beneficiaries. An employer or plan sponsor that relies on the language in an SPD to make decisions relating to the plan and plan participants/beneficiaries does so misguidedly and exposes both the sponsor and the plan to potential problems and liability.