Mertens v. Hewitt Associates, 508 U.S. 248 (1993)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 91-1671. Argued February 22, 1993—Decided June 1, 1993

Petitioners allege that they represent a class of former employees who participated in the Kaiser Steel Retirement Plan, a qualified pension plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA); that respondent was the plan's actuary when Kaiser began to phase out its steelmaking operations, prompting early retirement by many plan participants; that respondent failed to change the plan's actuarial assumptions to reflect the additional retirement costs, causing the plan to be funded inadequately and eventually to be terminated; that petitioners now receive only the benefits guaranteed by ERISA, rather than the substantially greater pensions due them under the plan; and that respondent is liable for the plan's losses as a nonfiduciary that knowingly participated in the plan fiduciaries' breach of their fiduciary duties. The District Court dismissed the complaint, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: ERISA does not authorize suits for money damages against nonfiduciaries who knowingly participate in a fiduciary's breach of fiduciary duty. ERISA 502(a)(3) permits plan participants to bring civil actions to obtain "appropriate equitable relief" to redress violations of the statute or a plan. Assuming, arguendo, that this creates a cause of action against nonfiduciaries who knowingly assist in a fiduciary's breach of duty, requiring respondent to make the plan whole for the losses it sustained would not constitute "appropriate equitable relief." What petitioners in fact seek is the classic form of legal relief, compensatory damages. We have held that similar language used in another statute precludes awarding damages. See United States v. Burke, 504 U. S. 229, 238. And the text of ERISA leaves no doubt that Congress intended "equitable relief" to include only those types of relief that were typically available in equity, such as injunction, mandamus, and restitution. Given ERISA's roots in the law of trusts, "equitable relief" could in theory mean all relief available for breach of trust in the common-law courts of equity, which would include the relief sought here. Since all relief available for breach of trust could be obtained from an equity court, however, that interpretation would render the modifier "equitable" superfluous; that reading would also deprive of all meaning the distinction Congress drew between "equitable relief" and "remedial"

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