High Court Agrees Pension Plans Sponsored by Church-Affiliated Hospitals Are ERISA-Exempt and Upholds Decades of IRS, PBGC and DOL Guidance

In a much-anticipated decision, on June 5 the U.S. Supreme Court held that a pension plan sponsored by a religious affiliated nonprofit hospital qualifies as an ERISA-exempt church plan even though the plan was not initially established by a church. In this decision the Court reversed three consolidated decisions by the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits holding that defined benefit pension plans initially established and sponsored by church affiliated nonprofit hospitals and healthcare facilities were not ERISA-exempt church plans specifically because they were not initially established by a church.  These courts held that since the church plan exemption did not apply, the plans must comply with ERISA’s funding, participation, vesting, reporting and disclosure rules.  In doing so, the Court affirmed long-standing guidance by the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that ERISA’s church-plan exemption applies to plans sponsored and maintained by religious affiliated nonprofit hospitals regardless of whether a church initially established the plans.  Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton.

The Court focused on the plain meaning of ERISA’s church plan exemption and noted that while the term “church plan” was initially defined in ERISA to include only those plans “established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church or by a convention or association of churches,” the definition was later amended to include additional plans.  The Court found that Congress specified that “for purposes of the church-plan definition, an ‘employee of a church’ would include an employee of a church-affiliated organization (like the hospitals here)” which the Court referred to as principal-purpose organizations. The Court found that Congress supplemented ERISA’s definition of church plan with the following provision: “A plan established and maintained for its employees . . . by a church or by a convention or association of churches includes a plan maintained by an organization . . . the principal purpose or function of which is the administration or funding of a plan or program for the provision of retirement benefits or welfare benefits, or both, for the employees of a church or a convention or association of churches, if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches.”  In effect, the Court held, “The church-establishment condition thus drops out of the picture.”

While the benefit plans at issue in this case were defined benefit pension plans, this holding has broad application to all benefit plans that are established by a principal-purpose organization and would otherwise be subject to ERISA’s funding, participation, vesting, reporting and disclosure rules.

For more information about this decision and its impact on your organization and your employee benefit plans, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com or Gina M. Schneider, Esq., gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com in the Firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

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