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On January 20, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Montanile v. Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan. Petitioner Montanile was injured by a drunk driver and his benefits plan paid more than $120,000 in medical expenses. He later sued the drunk driver, obtaining a $500,000 settlement. The benefits plan, governed by the Employees Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), contained a subrogation clause requiring a participant to reimburse the plan for medical expenses if the participant later recovers money from a third party for his or her injuries. When respondent plan administrator/fiduciary sought reimbursement from Montanile’s litigation settlement, he refused, and the administrator sued in federal court, seeking an equitable lien on any settlement funds or property in Montanile’s possession.  Montanile argued that because he had by then spent almost all of the settlement, no identifiable fund existed against which to enforce the lien. The District Court rejected Montanile’s argument and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that judgment. 

By a vote of 8-1 the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit, holding that when a participant dissipates the whole settlement on nontraceable items, the fiduciary cannot bring a suit to attach the participant’s general assets under ERISA §502(a)(3) because the suit is not one for “appropriate equitable relief.”  The Court deemed it unclear whether Montanile had in fact dissipated all of his settlement in this manner, however, and thus remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito joined the majority opinion except for Part III-C. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion.

To discuss the case, we have Daniel R. Thies, who is an associate at Sidley Austin LLP.

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