Judicial Council Decisions

Decision No. 1197

In Re: Request from the Detroit Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision as to the Meaning, Effect, and Application of ¶ 357.2 Regarding a Clergy Member’s Eligibility for Incapacity Leave

DIGEST OF CASE

Under ¶ 357.2 of the 2008 Discipline a clergy member may be placed on Incapacity Leave for the remainder of the annual conference appointment year. This appointment status is the determination of the annual conference. The denial of the CPP Disability Benefits by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits does not change the appointment status of Incapacity Leave of the clergy member.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

The 2011 Clergy Session of the Detroit Annual Conference requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the applicability and/or meaning of Incapacity Leave status for a clergy member who had been legitimately placed on Incapacity Leave according to ¶ 357.2 of the 2008 Discipline on August 16, 2010. The clergy member applied for disability benefits from the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits through the Comprehensive Protection Plan (CPP) benefit plan. The annual conference received a letter on April 15, 2011, from the administrators of the CPP benefit plan, UNUM, informing them that the clergy member’s application did “not satisfy the CPP’s definition of disability.” Their question of interpretation focuses on whether the clergy member remains on Incapacity Leave until the end of the conference year on June 30, 2011, or must another status be chosen. Minutes of the clergy session were enclosed including this request as well as minutes from the Cabinet sessions of the Detroit Annual Conference. The clergy person in question had the Incapacity Leave end on June 30, 2011, and has now been granted a Voluntary Leave of Absence – Personal Leave as provided by ¶ 354.2b of the Discipline effective July 1, 2011.

JURISDICTION

The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶2610 of the 2008 Discipline.

ANALYSIS AND RATIONALE

A review of the Discipline and the CPP Plan Document reveals that Incapacity Leave and the CPP Disability Benefit award involve different issues. Discipline ¶ 357 states in part:
When a clergy member is granted incapacity leave by the annual conference, if the medical evidence has not yet met the standards for the receipt of benefits as set forth in the Comprehensive Protection Plan, section 5.04, the conference board of pensions may authorize payment of the benefits in the amount that would otherwise be payable from the Comprehensive Protection Plan. The payments shall be made by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits as a charge to the annual conference granting the incapacity leave. If payments from the Comprehensive Protection Plan are subsequently approved, the annual conference will be reimbursed for benefits already paid, not to exceed the amount otherwise payable from the Comprehensive Protection Plan. (emphases added)


The Discipline contemplates (in the emphasized passages in the preceding paragraph) circumstances where a member may be granted Incapacity Leave, but he or she has not yet satisfied the requirements of CPP Disability, or does not ever satisfy them. By conditioning reimbursement of an Annual Conference’s Incapacity Leave grant upon approval of CPP Disability, the Discipline recognizes the difference between Incapacity Leave, which has a different threshold of qualification and is subject to the discretion of the Annual Conference, and CPP Disability, which has stringent qualifications established by the General Conference. Incapacity Leave grants are not reimbursed when CPP Disability is not approved.

The CPP Plan Document approved by General Conference, Section 5.04(c)(4) specifically states “[t]he determination of eligibility for the disability payments will not be influenced by any determinations by the Participant’s Conference or Salary-Paying Unit or Plan Sponsor as to the starting date for any ‘incapacity leave’ or related status for the Participant.” The General Conference expressly differentiated CPP Disability from Incapacity Leave.

The granting of an Incapacity Leave is the responsibility of the Annual Conference as articulated in ¶ 357.2. The bishop may grant an Incapacity Leave for the remainder of the conference year to someone who is unable to perform their ministerial work between sessions of the annual conference on account of health matters and/or disabling conditions. It requires the approval of a majority of the district superintendents, consultation with the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry and with the executive committee of the conference board of pensions. Discipline ¶ 337 states that “[a]ll elders in full connection who are in good standing in an annual conference shall be continued under appointment by the bishop unless they are granted a sabbatical leave, an incapacity leave (¶357), family leave, a leave of absence, retirement, or have failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility (¶334.2, .3)….” The Discipline gives to the annual conference power to grant appointment status or conference relationship. The bishop grants the appointment to the incapacity leave status between sessions of the annual conference.

The granting of the leave does not involve the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits. An Incapacity Leave is a separate appointive status that is not dependent on whether or not the member eventually receives benefits from the CPP Disability Plan. Terminating an Incapacity Leave solely because the General Board denies CPP Disability to the individual would inappropriately vest appointment authority over Incapacity Leave and conference relationships to the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, a general agency of the church, which is not a part of the annual conference.
CPP is the mandatory denominational clergy welfare benefit plan. It can only be amended by General Conference. Among other benefits, CPP provides long-term disability income replacement benefits, disability insurance, to participating clergy who become disabled as defined in the Plan.
CPP Section 5.04(g) vests the authority to adjudicate eligibility for benefits under the Plan in the General Board.
The Administrator shall have full authority to determine application procedures, eligibility for benefits, amounts of benefits, the commencement or discontinuance dates of any benefit payments, the development of any applicable earnings tests, and any related matters, for the disability benefits provided under this Plan.


CPP defines disability in Section 5.04(b):
A Participant will be considered disabled for purposes of the Plan as of the date the Administrator determines, on the basis of medical evidence, that such person is unable to perform the usual and customary duties of a United Methodist Clergyperson by reason of a bodily injury, a disease, or a behavioral illness or disorder, that, in any of these cases, the Administrator determines is expected to last for at least six continuous months….

This definition of CPP Disability is more specific than that of Incapacity Leave under Discipline ¶ 357. Incapacity requires only that the individuals “be unable to perform their ministerial work due to health matters or disabling conditions.” The use of the disjunctive “or” in this provision implies that not all circumstances leading to Incapacity Leave must be disabling; some may be non-disabling health conditions. There may be many health conditions that could result in an individual not being able to perform ministerial work, but that do not result in qualification for the CPP Disability benefit.
In this instant case, the General Board, following its own plan document requirements, apparently did not find that the medical evidence submitted was sufficient to support the claim that the participant was disabled by reason of behavioral illness that would last longer than six months. That determination should not preclude the annual conference from determining that the clergy member was unable to perform his ministerial work due to a health matter.
The Detroit Annual Conference’s own policies for the “Process for Incapacity Leave” assume the difference between appointment status and the receipt of disability benefits including the statement:
If the application is not approved by DMA (now UNUM), the Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits may continue the Bridge Grant for up to a year, understanding that there will be no repayment to the fund for all expenditures. Or, if disapproved, the pastor may wish to consider other options, including LOA, reappointment, retirement, etc.

The granting of an Incapacity Leave is separate and distinct from the granting of the CPP Disability. There may be similarities in the descriptions of the two. However, the Incapacity Leave defines the appointment status to the annual conference. The CPP Disability is an insurance benefit claim determination carried out by the General Board according to the Plan document approved by General Conference. This distinction does not contradict ¶ 357.2 of the Discipline or the terms of CPP. Incapacity Leave is a connectional relationship to the annual conference that is the responsibility of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, Conference Board of Pensions and the bishop. CPP Disability benefit determination regarding income replacement is the responsibility and charge of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits. Denial of CPP Disability by the General Board is not determinative of being granted Incapacity Leave by an annual conference, nor is granting of Incapacity Leave determinative of CPP Disability.

DECISION

Under ¶ 357.2 of the 2008 Discipline a clergy member may be placed on Incapacity Leave for the remainder of the annual conference appointment year. This appointment status is the determination of the annual conference. The denial of the CPP Disability Benefits by the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits does not change the appointment status of Incapacity Leave of the clergy member.

Friday, October 28, 2011.


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