Curtiss-Wright Corp. v. Schoonejongen, 514 U.S. 73 (1995)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1994

Syllabus

CURTISS-WRIGHT CORP. v. SCHOONEJONGEN et al.

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

No. 93-1935. Argued January 17, 1995—Decided March 6, 1995

Petitioner Curtiss-Wright Corp. amended its employee benefit plan to provide that the postretirement health care coverage it had maintained for many years would cease for retirees upon the termination of business operations in the facility from which they retired. In ruling for respondent retirees in their ensuing suit, the District Court found, among other things, that the new provision constituted an "amendment" to the plan; that the plan documents nowhere contained a valid "procedure for amending [the] plan, and for identifying the persons who have authority to amend the plan," as required by 402(b)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA); and that the proper remedy for this violation was to declare the provision void ab initio. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the standard reservation clause contained in Curtiss-Wright's plan constitution—which states that "[t]he Company reserves the right . . . to modify or amend" the plan—is too vague to be an amendment procedure under 402(b)(3).

Held: 1. Curtiss-Wright's reservation clause sets forth a valid amendment procedure. Pp. 78-86. (a) The clause satisfies the plain text of 402(b)(3)'s two requirements. Since ERISA's general definitions section makes quite clear that the term "person," wherever it appears in the statute, includes companies, the clause appears to satisfy 402(b)(3)'s identification requirement by naming "[t]he Company" as "the perso[n]" with amendment authority. This outright identification necessarily indicates a procedure for identifying the person as well, since the plan, in effect, says that the procedure is to look always to the company rather than to any other party. The reservation clause also contains a "procedure for amending [the] plan." Section 402(b)(3) requires only that there be an amendment procedure, and its literal terms are indifferent to the procedure's level of detail. As commonly understood, a procedure is a "particular way" of doing something, and a plan that says in effect it may be amended only by "[t]he Company" adequately sets forth a particular way of making an amendment. Principles of corporate law provide a ready-made set of rules for deciding who has authority to act on behalf of the company. But to read 402(b)(3) as requiring a plan to specify

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