Unbelievable: ERISA’s Broken Promise (ver. 3.3)

98 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2019 Last revised: 20 May 2020

See all articles by Peter J. Wiedenbeck

Peter J. Wiedenbeck

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2019


A central but generally neglected objective of federal regulation of pension and welfare benefit plans was to improve overall economic efficiency by providing workers with accessible and reliable information on which to base their career and financial planning. Simple dissemination of plan terms and financial data (full disclosure) cannot achieve that objective because few workers are equipped with the skills needed to evaluate the costs and benefits of complex retirement saving or health care programs. For that reason ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, requires curated disclosure of plan-related information: it must be presented a format that is both understandable to the average plan participant and sufficiently complete to empower workers to make best use of the program. The length and complexity of most employee benefit plans creates tension between understandability and completeness, calling for tradeoffs to achieve optimal disclosure.

As implemented ERISA’s understandability standard has been jettisoned by plan sponsors seeking protection from liability for failing to tell workers enough. Required plan summaries became unreadable, but plan sponsors could get away with that, both because there was no administrative or judicial enforcement of the understandability standard, and because they could tout the advantages of their benefit plans to workers by means of unregulated informal communications. The demise of understandability is only half the story. The federal courts have also degraded the reliability of mandatory disclosures by finding that the obligation to provide reasonably accurate and complete information is enforceable only in a suit for appropriate equitable relief. In consequence, disclosure defects are often presented as estoppel claims, and the necessary showing of individual detrimental reliance translates into widespread under-enforcement of the reliability standard.

This article explores the policy dimension of ERISA disclosure law and chronicles the decay of the equilibrium Congress envisioned. From the perspective of workers it is a saga of disappointment, disillusionment, and defeat. The new balance may serve the interests of federal courts (reduced caseload) and some employers (increased flexibility), but it also likely contributes to the increasing standardization of employee benefit plans, decreasing their utility as instruments of workforce management. Far worse, it abandons ERISA’s goal of improved economic performance through better-informed career and financial planning.

Keywords: ERISA, Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Employee Benefit Plan, Disclosure, Summary Plan Description, ERISA Remedies, ERISA Civil Enforcement, Estoppel, Contract Reformation

JEL Classification: J32, J33, J38, I13

Suggested Citation

Wiedenbeck, Peter J., Unbelievable: ERISA’s Broken Promise (ver. 3.3) (August 1, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3430686 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3430686

Peter J. Wiedenbeck (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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