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Employers use federal law to deny benefits

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The story has played out often under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Designed to protect employee benefits, the law has been used by employers as a shield against suits.

Federal appeals courts, interpreting Supreme Court decisions dating to 1993, consistently have said companies that offer health, life and retirement benefits under ERISA cannot be sued for large amounts of money, or damages. Instead, they can be sued only for typically smaller sums such as Amschwand's insurance premiums.

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