Why Structural Conflicts of Interest, Standing Alone, Are Irrelevant

Workplace Prof passes along today this opinion out of the Seventh Circuit by Judge Easterbrook addressing the question of structural conflicts of interest and their effect on the standard of review in ERISA governed benefit cases. Anyone who has read the bulk of my past posts on this subject knows that I do not buy the idea that the mere existence of the structural conflict standing alone - without more, such as an inference of distorted decision making that can be drawn from the administrative record itself - should affect the standard of review. There are a number of reasons for this, many of which I have explored in past posts on the question.  One of the most persuasive of which, however, has always been that the assumption that the structural arrangement by definition is affecting the decision making is frequently belied by close observation of the evidence concerning the processing of particular individual claims in situations where the administrator was also the payor; the evidence simply does not support the view that outcomes are typically varying simply because the administrator is also the payor of the benefits at issue.

Judge Easterbrook presents a very interesting take on this idea, focusing on the actual decision making by the administrator in any particular case, and suggesting why the mere fact that the same organization will also pay any covered benefits does not logically lead under those circumstances to improper claims processing. As the judge writes, in a section discussed by the Workplace Prof:

[O]ne must not anthropomorphize “the administrator.” Rarely is a pension or welfare plan’s administrator a person whose own welfare is at stake. Administrators commonly are large organizations, and the real people who make decisions on its behalf are no more interested in the outcome than federal judges are “interested” in the resolution of a tax case. True, judges’ salaries won’t be paid if taxes can’t be collected, but the effect of any one case on federal finances is so small that the judge does not care who prevails. Just so with the people who act on requests for pension or welfare benefits. Corporations often find it hard to align employees’ incentives with stockholders’ interests; they use stock options, bonuses, piece rates, and other devices. Administrators usually don’t try. There would be a real conflict of interest if a given administrator put in place a method of linking decisionmakers’ income to the substance of their decisions. A quota system (“grant no more than 50% of all applications”) or some other means of tying the wages or promotion of staff to its disposition of claims could call for non-deferential judicial review. But [the claimant here] has not argued that anyone who handled his claim had any personal interest in the outcome.

To which I would say, exactly. Note as well that the judge emphasizes one important distinction that I fear often gets overlooked when critics get their back up when anyone, myself included, suggests that structural conflicts of interest should not affect the standard of review. He is not saying that it can never affect the standard of review and that an administrator who also pays the benefits may not be acting under a conflict, but is instead recognizing that, given the realities of claim administration, it is inappropriate (perhaps more accurately, illogical) to assume that this alone is corrupting the claim determination process. Rather, as the judge points out, something more is needed in this situation to justify such an inference, something such as, in the judge’s example, evidence of a quota system or other activity that would suggest that the process was corrupted and not impartial.

The case is Williams v. Interpublic Severance Pay Plan.