August 01, 2016 Best of ABA Sections

LABOR AND EMPLOYMENT LAW: Equitable Estoppel in ERISA: Reviving a Dead Remedy

Jeffrey A. Herman

Equitable estoppel “operates to place the person entitled to its benefit in the same position he would have been in had the representations been true” (CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866 (2011)). It is a fundamental equitable remedy. With respect to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), however, federal courts have manufactured four extra barriers to relief: (1) representations cannot contradict unambiguous written plan terms, (2) representations cannot be oral, (3) representations cannot be based on silence or omissions, and (4) there must be “extraordinary circumstances.” With these limitations, few, if any, ERISA plaintiffs qualify for relief, even though they could have qualified under traditional equitable estoppel principles. Without the protections of these limitations, fiduciaries would be subject to liability under equitable estoppel for written or oral misrepresentations—or even their silence—concerning plan enrollment, terms, coverage, and benefits, even when those representations contradict plan terms.

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