In a case highlighting the uncertainty of the application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s expansion of section 502(a)(3) equitable relief in Cigna Corp. v Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866 (2011), the District Court of South Dakota ruled that equitable relief in under section 502(a)(3) of ERISA did not include traditional money damages.

In Plambeck v. The Kroger Co., the plaintiff asserted that equitable relief included money she would have been reimbursed if her medical claim had not been denied under her health insurance.  The District Court rejected this interpretation of Amara and noted that it was simply dicta by the Supreme Court and did not supplant Eighth Circuit precedent that limited the relief sought under §502(a)(3) to equitable, not legal, relief.

The Court’s ruling seems to underscore that future district court decisions considering money damages under section 502(a)(3) will be fact-oriented, and as the facts become more egregious, the possibility of money damage awards will likely improve.

Based upon this unsettled background, employers and plan sponsors should note the possibility of money damages and ensure that all communications with participants are clear and not susceptible to an unintended interpretation