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204

OCTOBER TERM, 2001

Syllabus

GREAT-WEST LIFE & ANNUITY INSURANCE CO. et al. v. KNUDSON et al.

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

No. 99-1786. Argued October 1, 2001—Decided January 8, 2002

When respondent Janette Knudson was injured in a car accident, the health plan (Plan) of petitioner Earth Systems, Inc., the employer of Janette's then-husband, respondent Eric Knudson, covered $411,157.11 of her medical expenses, most of which was paid by petitioner Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Co. The Plan's reimbursement provision gives it the right to recover from a beneficiary any payment for benefits paid by the Plan that the beneficiary is entitled to recover from a third party. A separate agreement assigns Great-West the Plan's rights to any reimbursement provision claim. After the Knudsons filed a state-court tort action to recover from the manufacturer of their car and others, they negotiated a settlement which allocated the bulk of the recovery to attorney's fees and to a trust for Janette's medical care, and earmarked $13,828.70 (the portion of the settlement attributable to past medical expenses) to satisfy Great-West's reimbursement claim. Approving the settlement, the state court ordered the defendants to pay the trust amount directly and the remainder to respondents' attorney, who, in turn, would tender checks to Great-West and other creditors. Instead of cashing its check, Great-West filed this federal action under 502(a)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to enforce the Plan's reimbursement provision by requiring the Knudsons to pay the Plan $411,157.11 of any proceeds recovered from third parties. The District Court granted the Knudsons summary judgment, holding that the terms of the Plan limited its right of reimbursement to the $13,828.70 determined by the state court. The Ninth Circuit affirmed on different grounds, holding that judicially decreed reimbursement for payments made to a beneficiary of an insurance plan by a third party is not "equitable relief" authorized by 502(a)(3).

Held: Because petitioners are seeking legal relief—the imposition of personal liability on respondents for a contractual obligation to pay money— 502(a)(3) does not authorize this action. Pp. 209-221.

(a) Under 502(a)(3)—which authorizes a civil action "to enjoin any act or practice which violates . . . the terms of the plan, or . . . to obtain other appropriate equitable relief"—the term "equitable relief" refers to those categories of relief that were typically available in equity.

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