You already know that when a Summary Plan Description conflicts with ERISA plan language, the ERISA plan language controls.

But what happens when all you have is a Summary Plan Description (SPD), and… no ERISA Plan? Can the SPD become the Plan, and authorize subrogation reimbursement? YES.

Here’s the case of Board of Trustees/National Elevator Health Plan Benefit v. Moore, _ F.3d _ (6th Cir. August 25, 2015) (PDF) (Subrogation: Language in Summary Plan Description authorized required reimbursement of medical expenses paid by Plan).

FACTS: The ERISA plan paid $34,204 in medical expenses for injuries Kyle Moore sustained in an accident. After Moore settled his tort claim for $500,000, the ERISA plan sought reimbursement. Moore claimed, however, that there was no ERISA plan language requiring reimbursement. The only document submitted in the record was the Summary Plan Description (SPD), which did provide require reimbursement.

ISSUE: Is the Summary Plan Description a Controlling Plan Document Requiring Subrogration Reimbursement?


  1. “[I]f the language in a SPD conflicts with the language in an ERISA plan, a district court is required to enforce ‘the terms of the plan.’” Op. at 6.
  2. “Nothing in Amara prevents a document from functioning both as the ERISA plan and an SPD, if the terms of the plan so provide.” Op. at 7 (Emphasis in original).
  3. “[A]n SPD describing employee benefits that anticipate the existence of a Plan, but is issued long in advance of the Plan, constitutes the actual plan, as well as a summary of a plan ‘that is nowhere else in writing.’” Op. at 8.
  4. The 3rd Circuit and the 11th Circuit (in unpublished decisions) have also recognized that a SPD can function as the controlling ERISA plan “in the absence of a separate plan document.” Op. at 7-8.