Supreme Court Rules ERISA-Exempt “Church Plan” Includes Plan Maintained by Church-Affilaited Organizations (like hospitals and schools)

The United States Supreme Court has held, in Advocate Health Care Network v Stapleton that a benefit plan maintained by a church-affiliated organization, whose principal purpose is to fund or administer a benefits plan for the employees of either a church or a church-affiliated nonprofit (a “principal purpose organization”) is a church plan under ERISA Section 3(33), regardless of who established the Plan. This is in accordance with the long-standing regulatory position adopted by the IRS, Department of Labor and PBGC.

Background on ERISA’s Church Plan Exception

ERISA generally obligates private employers offering pension plans to adhere to an array of rules designed to ensure plan solvency and protect plan participants. “Church plans” however, are exempt from those regulations.

From the beginning, ERISA  defined a “church plan” as “a plan established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church.”  Congress then amended the statute to expand that definition in two ways:

  • “A plan established and maintained for its employees . . . by a church . . . includes a plan maintained by an organization . . . the principal purpose . . . of which is the administration or funding of [such] plan . . . for the employees of a church . . . , if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church.” (The opinion refers to these organizations  as “principal-purpose organizations.”)
  • An “employee of a church” includes an employee of a church-affiliated organization.

The Case

The Petitioners in Advocate Health Care Network v Stapleton were three church-affiliated nonprofits that run hospitals and other healthcare facilities, and offer their employees defined-benefit pension plans. Those plans were established by the hospitals themselves, and are managed by internal employee-benefits committees. Respondents, current and former hospital employees, filed class actions alleging that the hospitals’ pension plans do not fall within ERISA’s church plan exemption because they were not established by a church. The Supreme Court held for the hospitals, ruling that a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization qualifies as a “church plan,” regardless of who established it. 

The Court reasoned that the term “church plan” initially “mean[t]” only “a plan established and maintained . . . by a church.” But the amendment provides that the original definitional phrase will now “include” another—“a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.” That use of the word “include” is not literal, but tells readers that a different type of plan should receive the same treatment (i.e., an exemption) as the type described in the old definition. In other words, because Congress deemed the category of plans “established and maintained by a church” to “include” plans “maintained by” principal purpose organizations, those plans—and all those plans—are exempt from ERISA’s requirements.

What Comes Next?

Advocate Health Care Network v Stapleton does not rule on what is or is not a “principle purpose organization”, and that is where we can expect future litigation to focus. The key question will be whether such organization is “controlled by or associated with a church.” Therefore, church-affiliated organizations, such as hospitals, schools, and social welfare agencies, that are relying on ERISA’s church plan exception ought to review their documentation and evidence of either control by or affiliation with a church.

Author: Erwin

Erwin Kratz practices exclusively in the areas of ERISA and employee benefits law, focusing on tax and regulatory matters relating to qualified and nonqualified deferred compensation and welfare benefits.