What Erisa Means by 'Equitable': The Supreme Court's Trail of Error in Russell, Mertens and Great-West

Columbia Law Review, Vol. 103, No. 6, 2003

Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 269

50 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2003 Last revised: 11 Jun 2013

John H. Langbein

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: 2003

Abstract

In a pair of cases decided by 5-4 majorities (Mertens, 1993; Great-West, 2002) interpreting the scope of remedy for wrongdoing under ERISA, the Supreme Court construed the statute's grant of "appropriate equitable relief" to prevent the victims of ERISA-prohibited conduct from being compensated for consequential injury. The Court read ERISA's authorization of "appropriate equitable relief" to have disinterred the law/equity division from the era before the two systems were fused in the 1930s, and the Court treated equity as not having awarded monetary relief. As a consequence, lower courts have held ERISA to preclude remedy in a host of situations in which wrongful plan administration (almost always in violation of ERISA's fiduciary rules) has caused expense, physical harm, or other suffering. This Article explains why and how the Court's interpretation of ERISA remedy law went wrong, beginning with the Court's earlier encounter with the field in Russell (1985). The main theme is that the reach of trust-law principles in ERISA is far deeper and more controlling than the opinions in Mertens and Great-West allow. When federalizing the administration of pension and employee benefit plans in ERISA, Congress made a deliberate choice to subject these plans to the pre-existing regime of trust law rather than to invent a new regulatory structure. In this dimension, ERISA is federal trust law. Congress intended ERISA remedy law to replicate the core principles of trust remedy law in the regulation of pension and benefit plans, including the long-familiar make-whole standard of trust remedy law.

Suggested Citation

Langbein, John H., What Erisa Means by 'Equitable': The Supreme Court's Trail of Error in Russell, Mertens and Great-West (2003). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 103, No. 6, 2003. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=371104

John H. Langbein (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
(203) 432-7299 (Phone)

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