Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. In this article, Zelinsky discusses the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in MetLife v. Glenn. That decision, he concludes, unintentionally reinforces the trend from defined benefit to defined contribution plans. Under MetLife v. Glenn, employers which sponsor and administer defined benefit pensions operate under a conflict of interest which subjects their administrative decisions to greater legal scrutiny.
Wanda Glenn was an employee of Sears, Roebuck & Company (“Sears”) and, as such, was covered by the Sears long-term disability insurance plan. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) both administered and insured the Sears plan. Ms. Glenn applied for continuing disability benefits. MetLife, as plan administrator, denied Ms. Glenn’s application for benefits which, if granted, MetLife, as the plan’s insurer, would itself have paid.
Ms. Glenn sued. Her lawsuit made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court which held in MetLife v. Glenn that, in light of the discretion confided to MetLife by the Sears plan, MetLife’s denial of Ms. Glenn’s disability benefit was to be reviewed judicially under a deferential “abuse of discretion” standard. However, the Court further stated, MetLife, as plan administrator, operated under a conflict of interest since any benefits MetLife granted as such administrator MetLife itself also paid as the plan’s insurer. Hence, in assessing whether MetLife, as plan administrator, abused its discretion, the courts must, among other factors, “take account of the conflict” MetLife faced as a plan administrator which was also the plan insurer. Such conflict of interest might “act as a tie-breaker when the other factors are closely balanced.”
MetLife v. Glenn has engendered extensive discussion. However, so far, one aspect of this decision has gone unremarked: MetLife v. Glenn is one more unintended push from our legal system, nudging employers away from traditional defined benefit plans towards 401(k) plans and other similar defined contribution retirement arrangements. After MetLife v. Glenn, the administrative decisions of employers sponsoring and administering defined benefit pensions will typically be subject to greater legal scrutiny than will be the administrative decisions of employers sponsoring and administering most 401(k) and similar individual account arrangements. This greater scrutiny incents employers to shift from their defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans.
Embedded in the traditional defined benefit pension administered by the sponsoring employer is the conflict of interest stemming from the employer’s obligation, as plan sponsor, to pay the costs of the plan — just as MetLife, as insurer, paid from its premium revenues the costs of the Sears disability plan. In the defined benefit setting, greater plan distributions to participants and beneficiaries require greater employer contributions to the plan. Consequently, any distribution denial by the employer sponsoring a traditional defined benefit pension implicates the conflict of interest in which MetLife found itself: If the employer as plan administrator denies plan benefits, it thereby reduces its costs as plan sponsor.
In contrast, an employer sponsoring and administering a typical defined contribution plan usually has no such conflict of interest since the individual accounts of such a plan belong to the participants. If, for example, an employer, as administrator of a 401(k) plan, denies a participant a hardship distribution from the plan, that denial does not decrease the employer’s costs; it merely delays the distribution to the participant of his 401(k) account until later. Since there is no conflict of interest in that setting, under MetLife v. Glenn, the employer’s decision will receive greater deference if challenged in the courts.
An important factor causing the decline of traditional defined benefit pensions and the concomitant rise of individual account arrangements like 401(k) plans has been the heavy regulatory cost imposed on defined benefit plans. MetLife v. Glenn represents the latest such cost, an unintentional cost, perhaps a small cost, but a cost nonetheless. Employers who sponsor and administer defined benefit plans are now on notice that, because of their conflicts of interest, their administrative decisions will generally receive less deference from the courts than will the comparable decisions of their competitors sponsoring and administering 401(k) plans who do not operate under such conflicts of interest. By itself, this will rarely cause an employer to terminate its defined benefit pension and shift to an individual account arrangement. But, to paraphrase the Supreme Court, this is the kind of cost which can act as a tie-breaker when the decision is close.
Consequently, Metlife v. Glenn, by reducing the deference ultimately granted to employers which sponsor and maintain defined benefit pensions, represents one more small, but unintended, push away from such pensions.