This case examined the nature of one of appellee Safelite’s benefit plans for its employees, specifically whether it was an employee pension benefit plan subject to ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A)(ii), or a bonus plan exempted from ERISA under 29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-2(c). An ERISA employee pension benefit plan “results in a deferral of income by employees for periods extending to the termination of covered employment or beyond.” The plaintiff argued that Safelite’s plan, which permits participants to defer compensation to retirement, does not “result[] in a deferral of income” because no deferral is required under the plan. The panel rejected this argument, pointing to the ordinary meaning of “results” as including a thing that arises as an effect or outcome from some design, regardless of whether that effect or outcome is a necessary product of the design. The court also noted that Congress used the words “require” or “requirement” in other ERISA provisions, further indicating that Congress’s use of “results” in § 1002(2)(A)(ii) is not synonymous with “require.” The panel also examined the statutory phrase “for periods extending to the termination of covered employment or beyond.” It held that this language permits deferrals for multiple periods, and so encompasses plans that permit distributions of deferred income both before and after retirement, as Safelite’s plan did.

The court also studied whether Safelite’s plan was an exempt bonus plan under 29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-2(c), which applies to payments made “as bonuses for work performed.” It looked to the plan’s text and found that it stated no intention to provide financial incentives for employee performance and did not explicitly operate as a bonus plan. Thus, the panel found the plan was not an exempt bonus plan.  So the panel held that ERISA preempted the plaintiff’s state-law claims against Safelite regarding the company’s plan, since ERISA applied to that plan and the bonus-plan exemption did not. 


Separately agreeing with the court’s holding that the employee benefit plan was an employee pension benefit plan under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2)(A)(ii), and not a bonus plan exempted from ERISA under 29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-2(c), Judge Thapar discussed the value of corpus linguistics as a tool of statutory interpretation. He explained the basics of the technique, which uses a searchable database to determine how a word was used at a given time, and touted it as offering a broader and more empirical understanding of words’ ordinary meanings, an especially helpful “cross-check” on more traditional tools of interpretation where “dictionaries diverge.” Slip Op. at 15.

Judge Thapar also responded to criticisms of corpus linguistics that Judge Stranch offered in a separate concurrence. He suggested that even though corpora may be unrepresentative, as they can rely on unrepresentative sources, no method of interpretation allows judges to avoid decisions about which sources are relevant—but corpus linguistics allows the public to vet those decisions. As to the risk that corpus linguistics will lead judges into rote application of the most-used definition of a word, Judge Thapar countered that judges will continue to consult other interpretive tools to reach an independent interpretation of a word’s ordinary meaning. Finally, he posited that corpus linguistics improves upon the lexicography available in dictionaries because corpora allow for consultation of words’ usage within the precise time period when a statute was enacted, and they allow judges to consult more examples of usage within that time period. Thus, Judge Thapar explained, he would have used “corpus results as a method to check [the court’s] work” in this case and “future cases where the ordinary meaning is debatable.” Slip Op. at 22.