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Court Erases In-House Lawyer's Billion-Dollar Error

When Barry Peters was an in-house benefits lawyer for Bell Atlantic Corp.(now Verizon Communications Inc.), he took a legal drafting seminar taught by a professional writer. "There were a number of very helpful suggestions," he recalls.

Unfortunately, one of the writing tips--avoid placing a phrase at the end of a long, compound sentence that modifies a thought near the beginning of the sentence--contributed to a $1.67-billion error in a retirement plan document Peters drafted for Bell Atlantic.

Matthew Heffner, partner at Susman Heffner & Hurst, who represented Young, says the printed word is especially important under ERISA, which Congress intended to be a largely self-sufficient law. Plan participants are entitled to rely on the plan document language, he says.

"The writing requirements, or the plan documents rule, is as old as ERISA, and it's been used and enforced very harshly against everyone since ERISA has been around," Heffner says.

Bill Barnhart

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