Government's SCOTUS brief supports hospitals in ERISA church plan cases

"We've always done it that way" seems to be the main argument advanced by the government's amicus curiae brief [Text of brief] in the consolidated cases of Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton [Supreme Court briefs], Saint Peter’s Healthcare System v. Kaplan [Supreme Court briefs], and Dignity Health v. Rollins [Supreme Court briefs].

The brief is signed by the Deputy Solicitor General and supported by the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor, and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

The controversy has to do with "church plans," which are specifically exempt from ERISA. Thus, church plans can ignore the many requirements and restrictions that ERISA requires of pension and benefit plans that are maintained by other private employers. The central issue is whether an employee benefit plan must be initially established by a church in order to qualify for ERISA's church plan exemption, or whether it is enough that the plan is maintained by a church or by a church-controlled or church-affiliated organization.

Here is a summary of the government's four main argument points, all of which lean heavily on the fact that the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor, and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation have always interpreted the statute as applying the church plan exemption to plans that were not initially established by a church:

  1. The agencies' interpretation reflects the natural reading of the statutory text. [I actually have some doubts about this, and the recent Circuit courts' decisions don't buy it.]
  2. The agencies' interpretation is supported by the context, history, and purpose of the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act of 1980 (MPPAA).
  3. The Court should give deference to the agencies' interpretation, citing Skidmore v. Swift & Co, 323 US 134 (1944).
  4. Nobody has come up with a good reason to upset decades of reliance interests.

Oral argument has not yet been scheduled. A decision is expected by July. For my previous comments on these cases: Ross Runkel Report - Supreme Court will decide 3 ERISA church-plan cases.

[For recent decisions and pending employment law cases, see US Supreme Court Watch.]


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