In a recent federal district court case, Whirlpool Corporation closed a factory and notified a number of former employees about the status of their pensions, including their years of credited service. The corporation’s records differed from the service records maintained by the union. Approximately five years after the factory closed, some of the participants asked for information that would enable them to determine whether their pension benefits had been calculated properly. The corporation failed to provide the requested information and ultimately sent a letter denying that request. The participants sued for the information.

Under ERISA, a plan administrator is required, upon written request, to furnish a copy of the latest summary plan description, annual report, plan documents, “or other instruments under which the plan is established or operated.” The corporation contended that the request for specific information about service credit did not fall under the category of “instruments under which the plan is established or operated.” The district court disagreed. The court said that the disclosure provisions of ERISA are intended to be broad and that Congress intended ERISA’s disclosure provisions to guarantee plan participants access to the information they need to protect their interests in a plan.

The case was before the court on a motion to dismiss. The court concluded that the case could proceed because the participants would have been entitled to the requested documents.

Plan administrators who do not comply with these requests for documents under ERISA can be fined up to $110 a day for each day of delay if the documents are not provided within 30 days of a request. Given the number of people involved and the length of time that the documents had not been provided, the plan administrator could be facing a substantial penalty for having withheld the documents. Employers confronted with plan document requests may wish to consult with counsel before deciding to withhold requested documents.