Supreme Court Rules ERISA Equitable Relief Can’t Reach Nontraceable Settlement Proceeds

Employee benefits plans regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA or Act) often contain subrogation clauses requiring a plan participant to reimburse the plan for medical expenses if the participant later recovers money from a third party for his injuries.

On January 20, 2016, the US Supreme Court held, in MONTANILE v. BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE NATIONAL ELEVATOR INDUSTRY HEALTH BENEFIT PLAN that if an ERISA-plan participant wholly dissipates a third-party settlement on nontraceable items, the plan fiduciary may not rely on a subrogation provision in their health plan to bring suit under ERSA §502(a)(3) to attach the participant’s separate assets.  Plan fiduciaries are limited by §502(a)(3) to filing suits “to obtain . . . equitable relief.” The Court previously held that whether the relief requested “is legal or equitable depends on [1] the basis for [the plaintiff’s] claim and [2] the nature of the underlying remedies sought.” Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., 547 U. S. 356, 363.  In Montanile, the Court held that the Plan was not seeking equitable relief because it sought to recover against the defendant’s general assets, not specifically traceable assets. The lesson for Plan fiduciaries wishing to assert subrogation claims is to (1) put participants on specific notice of the subrogation claim as soon as the Plan learns of a significant incident of a type that might give rise to a subrogation claim (such as an accident); and (2) pursue the claim diligently before the participant receives settlement proceeds.  We routinely include in our welfare wrap plan documents a vigorous subrogation reservation to protect Plans’ subrogation rights to the fullest extent practical.

More on the Montanile case…

Montanile was seriously injured by a drunk driver, and his ERISA plan paid more than $120,000 for his medical expenses. Montanile later sued the drunk driver, obtaining a 500,000 settlement. Pursuant to the plan’s subrogation clause, the plan administrator (the Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan, or Board), sought reimbursement from the settlement. Montanile’s attorney refused that request and subsequently informed the Board that the fund would be transferred from a client trust account to Montanile unless the Board objected. The Board did not respond, and Montanile received the settlement.

Six months later, the Board sued Montanile in Federal District Court under §502(a)(3) of ERISA, which authorizes plan fiduciaries to file suit “to obtain . . . appropriate equitable relief . . . to enforce . . . the terms of the plan.” 29 U. S. C. §1132(a)(3). The Board sought an equitable lien on any settlement funds or property in Montanile’s possession and an order enjoining Montanile from dissipating any such funds. Montanile argued that because he had already spent almost all of the settlement, no identifiable fund existed against which to enforce the lien. The District Court rejected Montanile’s argument, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that even if Montanile had completely dissipated the fund, the plan was entitled to reimbursement from Montanile’s general assets. The Supreme Cour reversed for the reasons explained above.

icon Supreme Court Decision in Montanile

icon Supreme Court Decision in Sereboff