Courts Split on Definition of Church Plan

A recent decision in Maryland leaves U.S. district courts evenly split on cases challenging retirement plans’ “church plan” status under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has issued an order granting partial dismissal of claims against Trinity Health Corporation challenging the “church plan” status of its retirement plan for employees.

The court says it holds that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) permits an organization that is “controlled by or associated with a church or convention of churches” to establish a “church plan.” The ruling evenly splits district court findings in six circuits, with half finding as the Maryland court did in Lann v. Trinity Health Corporation, and half finding that only a church may establish a “church plan.”   

Lawyers for Trinity Health argued that ERISA Section 3(33) subsection (A) states “the term ‘church plan’ means a plan established and maintained . . . for its employees (or their beneficiaries) by a church or by a convention or association of churches.” Subsection (C)(i)’s introduction then repeats the same language on what a “church plan” means, and after repeating the definition of “church plan” contained in subsection (A), subsection (C)(i) then states that such a plan includes a plan maintained by an organization (whether a civil law corporation or otherwise); (i) whose principal purpose or function is the administration or funding of the plan; and (ii) which is controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches. Subsection (A) thus exempts plans of churches, while subsection (C)(i) exempts plans of church-affiliated organizations.

In their argument, the attorneys say even if the “church plan” exemption were found ambiguous, the court should defer to the long-standing interpretation of federal agencies.

In addition, Trinity’s lawyers note that ERISA Section 3(33) Subsection (D) provides that if a plan fails to meet “one or more of the requirements of [ERISA § 3(33)],” the plan is entitled to a correction period to fix the defect. If a correction is made timely, the plan is deemed to meet “church plan” status “for the year in which the correction is made and all prior years.” According to the attorney’s this statutory right to retroactive correction means a court should resolve “church plan” status conclusively (and permit corrections) before considering any ERISA claims.

According to an FYI publication from Buck Consultants at Xerox, the three cases finding against “church plan” status for the defendants have appealed to the 9th, 3rd, and 7th Circuits. The Overall v. Ascension Health case, in which a district court found Ascension Health’s plan qualified as a “church plan” under ERISA, was appealed to the federal appellate court, but has been returned to the district court to consider a proposed settlement between the parties. More cases have been stayed pending appellate court decisions.