View From McDermott: Conflicting Review Standards in Executive Retirement Plan Benefit Claims—Is There Really a Difference?

By on February 26, 2014

Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, retirement plans generally come in two flavors – (i) retirement plans qualified under Section 401 of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) and (ii) executive retirement plans, called “top hat” plans, which aren’t Code-qualified.  What does that mean? While qualified retirement plans are subject to all of ERISA’s funding, participation and fiduciary provisions, top hat plans aren’t and may offer benefits exceeding those allowed under Code-qualified plans. Simply put, top hat plans are unique animals under ERISA.

Litigation involving top hat plans isn’t plentiful—likely due to the fact that such plans are available only to a small number of highly paid executives. However, within the limited top hat litigation realm, there exists a conflict among the federal courts of appeals over a seminal question—what review standard is to be applied to a benefit determination? While the U.S. Supreme Court has definitively answered this question for most ERISA plans in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, the unique nature of top hat plans has resulted in conflicting rules among the circuits.  Whether these conflicting standards elicit similar results is an open and complex question for most ERISA practitioners.

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