Equitable relief

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Equitable relief is a term used under ERISA Section 502(a)(3), which provides for "appropriate equitable relief" to redress violations of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(3), and also authorizes suits against fiduciaries to recover losses from fiduciary breaches.

The term "equitable relief" authorized by Section 502(a)(3) is relief that was "typically available in equity" rather than at law. Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248, 256 (1993) (emphasis omitted). Relief is equitable if both the claim and the remedy sought would have been considered equitable in the days of the divided bench. See Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 213 (2002); Sereboff v. Mid Atl. Med. Servs., Inc., 126 S. Ct. 1869, 1873-1877 (2006).

Historically, equity courts exercised virtually exclusive jurisdiction over claims by a beneficiary against a trustee for breach of trust. In those actions, equity provided a variety of remedies, one of which was to compel the trustee to redress the breach through the payment of money. That remedy, which was sometimes referred to as "surcharge," allowed the beneficiary to charge the trustee either for any profits made as a result of the breach or for the amount necessary to restore losses that would not have been suffered if the trust had been properly administered. Although surcharge was a form of monetary redress, it was distinct from legal damages and was available only in equity for a claim over which equity had exclusive jurisdiction. A suit against an ERISA fiduciary to recover losses caused by a breach of duty is therefore "equitable relief" under Section 502(a)(3).