Severance plans, Part 1: How savvy employers can stay ERISA compliant
An employer’s promise to provide severance benefits may be written or oral, formal or informal, and individual or group. Determining whether an ERISA plan already exists, or whether an employer wants its severance arrangement to be subject to ERISA, is an important consideration in determining an employer’s obligation and liabilities associated with a severance arrangement.
There are significant advantages associated with a severance arrangement that is an ERISA plan as discussed in detail below. An employer, however, cannot unilaterally decide that the severance arrangement is an ERISA plan. Instead, an employer, when designing and administering a severance arrangement, can take definitive steps to ensure that the arrangement is treated as an ERISA plan.
Employers may assume that the first step to ensure the existence of an ERISA plan is to have a written plan document, which is required by ERISA. Surprisingly, this is not necessarily determinative as to whether an ERISA plan exists. Courts have held that ERISA plans can exist without a written plan document and vice versa.
Case law has provided the broad outlines of the nature of an ERISA-governed severance plan. An essential characteristic of ERISA severance plans is that, by their nature, they necessitate “an ongoing administrative scheme.” Courts have looked at the following indicators when determining what constitutes an ongoing administrative scheme:
· The employer’s discretion in determining (1) eligibility for benefits or (2) available plan benefits
· The form of payment such as lump sums versus periodic payments
· Any ongoing demand on the employer’s assets such that there is an ongoing scheme to coordinate and control the distribution of benefits
· Calculations based on certain factors such as job performance, length of service, reemployment prospects, and so forth.
Severance plans or arrangements that normally do not require an ongoing administrative scheme, and therefore, do not implicate ERISA, are plans that have lump-sum payments that are calculated under a formula and are mechanically triggered by a single event (such as termination). Where severance payments are made over time (through payroll, for example) and/or additional benefits (such as continuation of benefits or outplacement services) are provided, the severance arrangement is likely subject to ERISA.
As a practical matter, whether severance arrangements are ad hoc or recognized in a formal plan document, they may end up providing ERISA-covered benefits. In a dispute, an employer generally prefers that ERISA applies because of ERISA’s preemption of state laws. Preemption protects employers from state laws that may favor employees and generally limits the dispute to an ERISA claim for benefits, thereby avoiding the potential exposure to punitive, extra-contractual or special damages under state laws. In addition, ERISA’s claim procedure, which provides a pre-litigation administrative process for dispute resolution, will apply if proper plan language is provided. If employees with a severance claim fail to faithfully follow the ERISA claims procedure, their lawsuits may be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
Typically, the plan document gives the employer, in its capacity as plan administrator, the discretionary authority to interpret the plan’s language and make decisions about the plan. If the employee follows the claim procedures and the claim is denied, the decision-making process of the employer (or its designee) if done properly, is given deferential treatment by a reviewing court. Moreover, in many cases, judicial review is limited to only those matters addressed in the administrative record of the claim. In other words, many federal courts would decline to consider factual matters that were not raised by the employee in the claim procedure process.
Another consideration for the savvy employer is that severance benefits are almost always considered to be “welfare” benefits. Welfare benefits, as opposed to pension benefits, are afforded an extremely low level of protection under ERISA. Essentially, the employer’s exposure as to promised severance benefits is only as broad as its express contractual commitment to them. By appropriately documenting the benefits with “best practices” language (such as specifying that the amendment or termination of benefits may be done with or without advance notice), employers can take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the relatively thin protections provided by ERISA. On the other hand, poor or no documentation of a severance arrangement may leave an employer with difficult-to-prove assertions as to what severance commitments were actually made.
In summary, an ERISA-governed plan provides an employer with significant advantages in litigation. In addition, a severance arrangement subject to ERISA will enjoy the powerful benefits of ERISA preemption and the ERISA claims procedures.