BURNS v. ORTHOTEK, INC. EMPLOYEES' PENSION PLAN AND TRUST (September 15, 2011)

Dr. Richard Burns conducted his northern Indiana orthodontics practice as Orthotek, Inc. Burns was the Plan administrator, the fiduciary, and the principal participant in the company’s pension plan. In early 2003, Burns signed a Plan document that named his sons as beneficiaries. His wife Cheryl signed a document consenting to that designation. Her signatures are dated the day after those of her husband's, however. When Dr. Burns died in mid-2004, Cheryl Burns filed a benefits claim. She claimed that she did not remember signing the form, that she did not understand the form, and that her signature was not witnessed. The Plan denied her claim. Cheryl Burns brought suit against the Plan pursuant to ERISA. Chief Judge Simon (N.D. Ind.) granted summary judgment to the Plan. Burns appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Posner, Flaum, and Sykes affirmed. Under ERISA, a plan participant may designate a beneficiary other than a surviving spouse but only if the spouse consents in writing and the consent is witnessed by a plan representative. The only issue on this appeal is whether Dr. Burns witnessed his wife's signature. The Court rejected the district court's conclusion that the consent was in "substantial compliance" with ERISA. The doctrine of substantial compliance comes into play only when ERISA is silent on a subject. Here, the statute explicitly requires a witnessed consent. But the statute does not necessarily require that the witness be physically present at the time of the spouse’s signature. Furthermore, the Court stated that the statute should not be interpreted to produce absurd results. Here, a) Dr. Burns was the only Plan representative, b) he signed the required forms, c) he must have given the forms to his wife, d) his wife signed the forms, and e) she must have given the forms back to him. Under these admittedly unusual circumstances, the Court concluded that the Plan was within its discretion to find that Dr. Burns witnessed his wife's signature.