Curtiss-Wright Corporation v. Schoonejongen

PETITIONER: Curtiss-Wright Corporation
RESPONDENT: Schoonejongen et al.
LOCATION: Edison High School

DOCKET NO.: 93-1935
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 514 US 73 (1995)
ARGUED: Jan 17, 1995
DECIDED: Mar 06, 1995

ADVOCATES:
Laurence Reich - on behalf of the Petitioner
Lawrence Reich - for petitioner
Richard P. Bress - on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioner
Thomas M. Kennedy - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Curtiss-Wright Corporation v. Schoonejongen

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 1995 in Curtiss-Wright Corporation v. Schoonejongen

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 06, 1995 in Curtiss-Wright Corporation v. Schoonejongen

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court number 93-1935, Curtiss-Wright Corporation against versus Schoonejonge will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

This case comes here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

For many years, the petitioner Curtiss-Wright provided Post-retirement Health Benefits to certain retired employees including the responders.

In early 1983, this Post-retirement Health Benefits plan was changed in a way that eventually led to the termination of the benefits for the retirees, and the retirees sued Curtiss-Wright claiming among other things that the plan did not contain an amendment procedure as acquired by Section 402(B)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 or ERISA as it?s called, and claiming that the proper remedy for such a violation is to declare the amendment null and void.

The District Court agreed with the retirees and ordered payment of back health benefits.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Curtiss-Wright argued that Post-retirement Health Benefit did contain a valid amendment procedure, namely a clause that states the company reserves a right at any time to amend the plan.

In Curtiss-Wright?s views a clause sets forth an amendment procedure as required by the statute because it says in effect that the plan is to amended by the company.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument.

In its view the amendment by the company is too vague to count as a valid amendment procedure.

The court reasoned that in passing Section 402(B)(3) Congress intended the amendment procedures to convey enough detail to enable beneficiaries of the plan, to learn the terms of the plan at any time and that procedure should specify the individuals or the committee within the company having the amendment authority.

We now reverse; the literal terms of the statute do not require any level of detail in the amendment procedure.

The statute requires only that there would be an amendment procedure, and here there is such a procedure in our view.

As for the Court of Appeals views that Congress intended amendment procedures to convey enough detail to enable the plan beneficiaries to learn their rights and obligations, we do not find support for that.

One of ERISA?s central goals is certainly that of having a plan that would enable beneficiaries to learn their rights, but ERISA already has an elaborate scheme in place to accomplish that goal.

A scheme that?s built around reliance on written plan documents, and it?s given effect through an exhaustive set of disclosure requirements.

We don?t reach the question of proper remedy.

On remand, the Court of Appeals will have to decide the question that has always been at the heart of this case, whether a Curtiss-Wright's valid amendment procedure, amendment by the company was complied with in this case.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.