Suicide Exclusions Under ERISA Plans, and the Impact, If Any, of the Standard of Review

There’s an interesting, if brief, ERISA case out of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts decided last week that enforced a suicide exclusion in an employer provided supplemental life insurance program. The court found that the evidence in the administrative record supported the administrator’s determination that the employee had committed suicide within two years of electing the coverage, and that the benefits were therefore not available because the plan excluded death by suicide in the first two years of coverage. The case itself is not very noteworthy, other than to the parties themselves of course, except for one thing that jumped out at me. Many critics of the current legal regime under ERISA complain that the arbitrary and capricious standard of review that applies to cases, such as this one, where the administrator retains discretion to interpret and apply the plan, terribly distorts the outcome of cases in ways unfair to claimants. I have argued before that I am not convinced that, in the vast overwhelming majority of cases, this is true at all. Rather, most of the time, the same administrative record that would justify upholding a denial under the arbitrary and capricious standard on the theory that the administrator’s decision is reasonable given the evidence in the record, also contains enough evidence to prove the administrator correct under a de novo standard of review, where the court makes its own independent determination of the claimant’s entitlement to benefits. This case illustrates that point yet again: while the court upheld the ruling while applying the arbitrary and capricious standard, the evidence detailed in the opinion should have led to the exact same result even if the issue were considered de novo or the case treated as simply a breach of contract case under standard common law governing contracts. Indeed, in my other hat as an insurance coverage litigator, it seems clear to me that the result here, on the evidence detailed in the opinion, would have been the same even if this policy was not controlled by ERISA and was instead simply a private contract of insurance between the deceased and the insurance company; the policy language and the facts would have led to a finding of no coverage even if litigated as an insurance coverage, rather than an ERISA, case. The case is Keiffer v. Shaw Group, and you can find it here.