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ERISA has narrow scope for employees of Indian tribal governments

Lawmakers in Washington D.C. created the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to direct the design and operation of retirement plans for private-sector employees. ERISA does not apply to retirement plans operated for employees of government agencies, and workers at Indian tribal governments largely fall into the non-ERISA category. An amendment to the act in 2006 altered this landscape for plan sponsors at Indian tribal governments and granted ERISA protections to workers employed within tribal commercial enterprises.

A retirement plan for tribal workers would only be exempt from ERISA if the employees performed essential governmental functions, such as teachers. Tribal governments running retirement plans for employees at commercial venues, like hotels or casinos, would have to observe ERISA rules. The act requires plan sponsors to file annual reports, provide participants with a summary plan description, adhere to specific procedures for claims and appeals and meet fiduciary standards.

This regulatory environment presents tribes with the options of running a single ERISA plan for all workers regardless of their governmental or commercial status or sponsoring separate retirement plans. Although operating two separate plans is an acceptable option, that choice would likely add layers of complexity that the plan sponsor must navigate to fulfill legal obligations for all plan participants.

A individual dissatisfied with the results of a claim for benefits could contact an attorney to learn if a benefits denial violated the rules. An attorney could evaluate the denial and initiate an appeal if it appears illegitimate. This process could begin with communications with the plan administrator but potentially escalate to a lawsuit if the person's rights were violated. Because ERISA benefits represent a niche area of the law, an individual might wish to retain an attorney familiar with the nuances of pension disputes.

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