Relying On SPD In An ERISA Claim Is A "No-No"

An ERISA SPD (Summary Plan Description) is supposed to help employees understand the insurance protection they have from their employer by explaining that protection in plain English.

However, since the SPD is compiled by a person who may or may not have the needed abilities to read, understand and transcribe in plain English the complex language of an ERISA plan and its underlying insurance policies, the SPD may very well contain errors, misinterpretations and may even omit important requirements.

To rely only on the information in an SPD in making an ERISA claim is to court disaster. Proof of this is in Cigna v. Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866 (2011), which holds that even when an SPD provides incorrect information, a claimant has no right to rely upon it. Only what is actually in the plan controls.

ERISA claims are dependent solely on the terms of the ERISA plan specific to each employer, regardless of what the SPD says. The plan has to conform to strict Federal regulations modified only by case law which pertains to ERISA.

The one consistent rule is that the specific terms of the employer’s plan itself are the only reliable guidelines for evaluating an insurance claim under an ERISA plan.

The result is layer after layer of complex, many time obtuse “legalese”, inserted in the plan by people who know exactly what they are doing. To most people, including some lawyers who don’t practice ERISA law, the plan may as well be written in a foreign language.


To determine whether an employee’s claim is covered by an employer’s ERISA plan, one must first read and understand the plan and the accompanying insurance policies. Only if the claim is covered by the plan will the claimant have a shot at succeeding.

In most cases an employee will never have seen a copy of the plan. He or she may not know where to find one. ERISA requires employers to furnish an employees with a copy of the ERISA plan when asked.

If circumstances are forcing you to think you might have to make an ERISA claim, getting a true copy of the plan and the insurance policy associated with it, should be your first order of business. Most employers make them available through their Human Resources departments. uman Resourcersd departmentsd.


When you get the necessary documents, if the language is a bit much or you think you don’t have the expertise, get help from a lawyer, preferably one who has experience with ERISA claims.

The SPD is OK for giving you a general overview of the ERISA coverage afforded you by your employer.

But, when matters turn serious, rely only on the terms of the ERISA plan and the insurance policy which supports it. To do otherwise may do you great harm.