When participants believe they’ve been mistreated by your retirement plan and take their complaints to court, be prepared for requests for plan documents. Although under ERISA you’re obligated to produce relevant materials, you aren’t required to indulge a document fishing expedition. A recent court case, Theriot v. Building Trades United Pension Trust Fund, offers insights on just how far you need to go, and where to draw the line.
ERISA requires administrators, on a participant’s or beneficiary’s written request, to furnish a copy of:
- The latest summary plan description,
- The most recent annual report,
- Any terminal report, and
- The bargaining agreement, trust agreement, contract or “other instruments under which the plan is established and operated.”
Plans must furnish these documents within 30 days or face a maximum $110 per day fine for the amount of days elapsed after the 30-day deadline passes.
The underlying dispute centered on the plan’s rejection of a request by the daughter of a pension beneficiary to receive a lump sum distribution of a pension benefit following the death of her mother. Her mother had met a deadline for requesting a lump sum distribution but died before the distribution date promised by the pension administrator. The pension determined that the daughter was ineligible to receive that benefit because her mother had died before the lump-sum distribution date.
Among other things, the plaintiff was looking for any documents that would justify the administrator’s denial of that benefit — or not. In response, the plan narrowly interpreted the documents it was obligated to produce, including the then-current (2017) plan document. It didn’t, however, produce a copy of the plan’s original 1990 document. Its failure to do so was one of the issues in the case. The plan should’ve known that it was being asked to produce that document, argued the plaintiff.
Referencing prior cases, the judge noted that claimants don’t have to request a document using its precise name if the request is sufficiently clear to give the plan administrator notice of the information the claimant seeks. In this case, however, the court found that the plaintiff’s request for documents didn’t give clear notice “such that a reasonable plan administrator would have known” the plaintiff was also requesting the 1990 plan document and other documents which the administrator didn’t provide.
Furthermore, even if the plaintiff had requested the 1990 plan document specifically, the plan wouldn’t have been obligated to produce it. This is because the plan administrator used the 2017 plan document to administer the plan during the period relevant to this case, not the original 1990 one.
The plaintiff also had requested — and didn’t receive — copies of “any errors and omissions policies issued to the [pension],” presumably with hopes that the pension could file a claim with such a policy to generate cash to settle the claim. But the court ruled that the fund wasn’t obligated to produce these policies because they didn’t qualify as “instruments under which the plan is established or operated.”
In the end, the pension plan stood its ground on document production and successfully rebuffed the plaintiff’s multiple wide-ranging document requests. If you’re unsure on where to draw the line in supplying requested plan documents, consult your ERISA attorney.