7th Circuit Holds Only a Church Can Establish an ERISA-Exempt Church Plan

On March 17, 2016 the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals joined the 3rd Circuit in holding that a network of hospitals and health care locations that is affiliated with a church cannot establish an ERISA-exempt church plan. Stapleton v. Advocate Health Care Network (7th Cir. 2016).

In Stapleton, several current and former employees of the church-affiliated hospital claimed that the organization failed to comply with ERISA’s vesting, reporting and disclosure, funding, trust, and fiduciary rules. The 7th Circuit Curt of Appeals agreed.

This issue is bubbling up all over the country. District Court cases have decided the question both ways. There is a case pending before the Ninth Circuit that held at the District Curt level that an affiliate cannot establish a church plan. Rollins v. Dignity Health, 19 F. Supp. 3d 909, 917 (N.D. Cal. 2013), appeal filed, No. 15-15351 (9th Cir. Feb. 26, 2016). The employer in Rollins faces up to $1.2 billion in funding obligations if it loses the case.

District court cases in several other states have help the other way – that affiliated organizations can establish a church plan.  The only two Court of Appeals cases to decide the question have ruled that the affiliated organization cannot establish a church plan. See Stapleton and Kaplan v. St. Peter’s Healthcare Sys., 810 F.3d 175 (3d Cir. 2015).

If you an organization affiliated with a church that is relying on the church plan exemption from ERISA’s vesting, reporting, disclosure, funding, trust, and fiduciary rules, you ought to review that decision with ERISA counsel.

Author: Erwin Kratz

Erwin Kratz practices exclusively in the areas of ERISA and employee benefits law, focusing on tax and regulatory matters relating to qualified and nonqualified deferred compensation and welfare benefits.