RBG Dissent Cites Law Review Article Praising Her 2002 Dissent, Urges #SCOTUS To “Confess Its Error”

January 20th, 2016

Perhaps the most scorned acronym in the Supreme Court is ERISA. Woe is the clerk who has the write the ERISA opinion. Today’s opinion in Montanile v. Board of Trustees of Nat. Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan involves ERISA. If you want to know what the case is about, ask someone else. However, of note is RBG’s dissent, which is self-explanatory:

Montanile received a $500,000 settlement out of which he had pledged to reimburse his health benefit plan for expenditures on his behalf of at least $121,044.02. See ante, at 2–3. He can escape that reimbursement obliga- tion, the Court decides, by spending the settlement funds rapidly on nontraceable items. See ante, at 8. What brings the Court to that bizarre conclusion? As developed in my dissenting opinion in Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U. S. 204, 224–234 (2002), the Court erred profoundly in that case by reading the work product of a Congress sitting in 1974 as “unravel[ling] forty years of fusion of law and equity, solely by employing the benign sounding word ‘equitable’ when authorizing ‘appropriate equitable relief.’” Langbein, What ERISA Means by “Eq- uitable”: The Supreme Court’s Trail of Error in Russell, Mertens, and Great-West, 103 Colum. L. Rev. 1317, 1365 (2003). The Court has been persuasively counseled “to confess its error.” Ibid. I would not perpetuate Great- West’s mistake, and would therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Here is the relevant passage from the John Langebin article:

The Supreme Court needs to confess its error in ERISA remedy law, much as it has recently confronted its mishandling of ERISA preemption,283 and to realign ERISA remedy law with the trust remedial tradition that Congress intended in the grant of “appropriate equitable relief.” It was error to say that mandamus was an equitable remedy; mandamus was always legal and never equitable. It was error to say that money damages never lay for equitable causes of action; our courts award damages for breach of trust and for other equitable causes of action every day. It was error to say that a Congress sitting in 1974 meant to unravel forty years of fusion of law and equity, solely by employing the benign sounding word “equitable” when authorizing “appropriate equitable relief.” It was error to confuse the routine judicial work of applying so abstract a term as “appropriate equitable relief” with the forbidden activity of implying omitted statutory provisions. Congress federalized the law of pension and benefit plan administration for the primary purpose of protecting plan participants and beneficiaries through a triple regime of mandatory trusteeship, *1366 extensive fiduciary duties, and commensurate remedies. Those remedies, all derived from the make-whole tradition of the law of trusts, sound exclusively in equity and include money damages for consequential injury.

Curiously Justice Breyer also joined RBG’s 2002 dissent–along with Stevens and Souter–but joined the majority today, so it isn’t clear how “bizarre” the conclusion is.