What Effect Does MetLife v. Glenn Have on Discovery in Denial of Benefit Claims?

Apparently none, at least according to the first ruling on this question I have seen out of a court in the First Circuit. In a ruling by a magistrate judge, the United States District Court for the District of Maine has concluded that MetLife v. Glenn does not change the rules in the First Circuit governing the extent to which - if at all - a party is allowed to conduct discovery beyond the administrative record itself in a denied benefits case governed by the arbitrary and capricious standard of review. The court found that MetLife is not a discovery ruling, and posits only that, on a case by case basis, a structural conflict of interest may be determined to impact the outcome. The court found that as a result, whether to allow discovery into any prejudice caused by the conflict of interest is likewise to be determined on a case by case basis, and to only be allowed upon a showing by the claimant that discovery into the subject is justified under the circumstances of the particular case at bar; the court specifically found that discovery beyond the administrative record was not allowed in general and as of right, simply because of MetLife. Interestingly, the court found that this is entirely consistent with the existing standards in the First Circuit governing when discovery beyond the administrative record can be allowed- standards which have existed since long before MetLife was decided - and the court is correct on this.

However, to the extent that the case may suggest that a bulwark can be maintained against the expansion of discovery in ERISA cases involving structural conflict of interests, I doubt it should be read in that way, or that the judge intended that. First, certainly MetLife, to mean anything, will over time have to be interpreted as allowing discovery to some extent into whether the conflict played a role, what role it played, and whether it should factor into the court’s review (and if so, in what manner). Otherwise, the decision really doesn’t grant claimants any significant opportunity to prove that the type of conflict at issue in MetLife should affect the outcome of a particular case. Second, the real question, and upcoming battleground, then, is what impact MetLife should be interpreted to have with regard to discovery. The answer, I think, is in line with the magistrate judge’s reasoning and matches up, as the judge suggested, perfectly with current First Circuit law on extra-administrative record discovery, which generally posits that a claimant has to show some really good reason to warrant such discovery. This standard would apply perfectly to cases involving structural conflicts of interest, by requiring that claimants establish a valid reason (perhaps based on discrepancies in the administrative record, or other facts that would at least imply that the conflicted status may have played a role in the benefit determination) that justifies further discovery into the effect of the conflict and justifies a particular scope of discovery. This would be consistent with MetLife, while simultaneously preventing denial of benefit cases from being transformed into the type of overpriced discovery heavy cases that, one, burden much of the rest of civil litigation, and, two, courts have long sought to prevent ERISA cases from being transformed into.

I could write all day on the interplay of ERISA discovery, current standards governing it, and MetLife, but for now, I’d best stop there. If time allows, perhaps I will return to the topic in still more detail in another post.