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Document Type

Notes

Abstract

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) protects the pensions of American workers by placing vesting, funding, and fiduciary obligations on plan sponsors. “Church plans” established and maintained by church organizations, however, are exempt from the provisions of ERISA to avoid entanglement between church and state. After the enactment of ERISA and its church plan exemption, federal agencies and courts long-debated which pension plans qualified as church plans, culminating in the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton. In Stapleton, the Supreme Court adopted a broad interpretation of a church plan, under which plans could either be established and maintained by a church or church-affiliated organization, or maintained by a qualifying church-affiliated organization, regardless of who established it. Since this decision, federal courts have largely refused claims brought by litigants who are members of church plans maintained by church-affiliated organizations. Many of these litigants have pursued alternative recourse, including settling out of court or seeking damages in state court. This Note demonstrates the limited options left for participants in and beneficiaries of church plans after the Stapleton decision, and examines several recent church plan cases to assess the strengths and weaknesses of various post-Stapleton strategies. This Note finally proposes a call for reform of the ERISA church plan exemption and a state statutory law response.

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