Mertens v. Hewitt Associates, 508 U.S. 248, 10 (1993)

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Cite as: 508 U. S. 248 (1993)

Opinion of the Court

ing becomes, perhaps, increasingly unlikely; but it remains a question of interpretation in each case which meaning is intended.

In the context of the present statute, we think there can be no doubt. Since all relief available for breach of trust could be obtained from a court of equity, limiting the sort of relief obtainable under 502(a)(3) to "equitable relief" in the sense of "whatever relief a common-law court of equity could provide in such a case" would limit the relief not at all.7

7 The dissent argues that it would limit the relief by rendering punitive damages unavailable. Post, at 270-272. The notion that concern about punitive damages motivated Congress is a classic example of projecting current attitudes upon the helpless past. Unlike the availability of money damages, which always has been a central concern of courts and legislatures in fashioning causes of action, the availability of punitive damages is a major issue today, but was not in 1974, when ERISA was enacted. See Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U. S. 1, 61-62 (1991) (O'Connor, J., dissenting); P. Huber, Liability 127 (1988); Ellis, Fairness and Efficiency in the Law of Punitive Damages, 56 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1, 2-3 (1982). That is particularly so for breach-of-trust cases. The 1988 edition of Scott & Fratcher cites no pre-ERISA case on the issue of punitive damages, see 3 Scott & Fratcher 205, p. 239, n. 2; the 1982 edition of Bogert & Bogert cites two, see Bogert & Bogert 862, p. 41, n. 12. The 1992 supplements to these treatises, however, each cite more than a dozen cases on the issue from the 1980's.

But even if Congress had been concerned about "extracompensatory forms of relief," post, at 270, it would have been foolhardy to believe that excluding "legal" relief was the way to prohibit them (while still permitting other forms of monetary relief) in breach-of-trust cases. The dissent's confident assertion that punitive damages "were not available" in equity, ibid., simply does not correspond to the state of the law when ERISA was enacted. A year earlier, a major treatise on remedies was prepared to say only that "a majority of courts that have examined the point probably still refuse to grant punitive damages in equity cases." D. Dobbs, Remedies 3.9, p. 211 (1973). That, of course, was speaking of equity cases in general. It would have been even riskier to presume that punitive damages were unavailable in that subclass of equity cases in which law-type damages were routinely awarded, namely, breach-of-trust cases. The few trust cases that did allow punitive damages were not exclusively actions at law. See Rivero v. Thomas, 86 Cal. App. 2d 225,


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