U.S. Supreme Court Interpretation Permits Thousands of “Church Plans” – Including Many for Hospitals and Health Systems – to Remain Exempt from ERISA

On June 5, 2017, the United States Supreme Court unanimously adopted a “broad” interpretation of the exemption allowed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) for “church plans.”   The decision effectively permits thousands of retirement plans adopted by church-affiliated organizations – including numerous hospitals, schools and social-service organizations – to remain exempt from most ERISA requirements.

Plaintiffs in the case of Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton argued that a “narrow” interpretation of the “church plan” exemption was appropriate, and that they were damaged by their employers failing to comply with ERISA’s various requirements designed to protect employee retirement savings.  Advocates of the “narrow” interpretation argued that only plans actually established by a church should be eligible for the exemption.

A split among the United States Courts of Appeal between the “broad” and “narrow” interpretations of the exemption had left plan sponsors and participants in an uncertain state where the applicable plan was maintained by a church-affiliated group and not established by the church itself.

A considerable number of plans in question related to church-affiliated hospitals and health systems.  A “narrow” interpretation would render such plans subject to ERISA.

In an 8-0 decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court concluded that principles of statutory interpretation favored the conclusion that Congress chose language indicating a “broad” exemption.  The “broad” exemption had been employed in interpretive materials, advisory opinions and private letter rulings of the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor, so the decision eliminates, for now, the uncertainty that had arisen with respect to plans that had relied on said interpretation.

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