Curtiss-Wright Corp. v. Schoonejongen, 514 U.S. 73, 4 (1995)

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76

CURTISS-WRIGHT CORP. v. SCHOONEJONGEN

Opinion of the Court

testified that they did not think the provision effected a "change" in the plan, but rather merely clarified it. Id., at 70-71, 79. Probably for this reason, the record is less than clear as to which Curtiss-Wright officers or committees had authority to make plan amendments on behalf of the company and whether such officers or committees approved or ratified the new SPD provision. In any event, later that year, Curtiss-Wright announced that the Wood-Ridge facility would close. Shortly thereafter, an executive vice president wrote respondents a series of letters informing them that their post-retirement health benefits were being terminated.

Respondents brought suit in federal court over the termination of their benefits, and many years of litigation ensued. The District Court ultimately rejected most of respondents' claims, including their contention that Curtiss-Wright had bound itself contractually to provide health benefits to them for life. The District Court agreed, however, that the new SPD provision effected a significant change in the plan's terms and thus constituted an "amendment" to the plan; that the plan documents nowhere contained a valid amendment procedure, as required by 402(b)(3); and that the proper remedy for the 402(b)(3) violation was to declare the new SPD provision void ab initio. The court eventually ordered Curtiss-Wright to pay respondents $2,681,086 in back benefits.

On appeal, Curtiss-Wright primarily argued that the plan documents did contain an amendment procedure, namely, the standard reservation clause contained in the plan constitution and in a few secondary plan documents. The clause states: "The Company reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or amend, in whole or in part, any or all of the provisions of the Plan." App. 37; see also 2 RIA Pension Coordinator ¶ 13,181, p. 13,276R-124 (1994) (reproducing IRS' prototype employee benefits plan, which contains similar language). In Curtiss-Wright's view, this

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