Long Term Disabilty Benefits, Human Behavior and Standards of Review

An article in the New York Times yesterday on men who simply won't go back to work caught my eye because at times expressly and at other times by implication, it delves into the potent mix of cultural and behavioral forces that seem to impact what we offhandedly refer to as "work ethic." The behavioral and cultural issues noted in the article circle back to an interesting point in litigation involving ERISA governed long term disability plans, which is that - so long as certain legal requirements are met - the plans and their administrators have a great deal of discretion in deciding whether or not someone is disabled or should, instead, be expected to return to work in some capacity or another. In real world terms, in the course of litigation, this grant of discretion provides plans and administrators with a certain amount of power over plan beneficiaries with regard to the question of whether the beneficiary is truly disabled or instead belongs at work.

The general ins and outs of the discretion granted to administrators in that circumstance, I won't discuss in much detail here. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note that when an ERISA governed disability plan grants the administrator discretion in interpreting and applying the plan's terms, the administrator has a great deal of latitude in its decision making, generally subject only to the requirement that the decision be reasonable (with the case law providing further detail as to what reasonable means in that context). This issue is delved into in more detail here. Although lawyers for claimants often object to this line of thinking, this grant of discretion is usually considered to be acceptable on the thesis that it fits with Congress' intention to encourage employers, by making it relatively easy to provide them and by limiting employers' exposure to liability, to provide such benefits.

But the New York Times article points to another possible - and real world - justification for granting such discretion to plans and their administrators, and for granting them great leeway in determining whether a claimant is sufficiently employable to be expected to work rather than collect long term disability benefits. Discussing disability benefits under social security, the article points out:

The ailments that qualify them are usually real, like back pain, heart trouble or mental illness. But in some cases, the illnesses are not so serious that they would prevent people from working if a well-paying job with benefits were an option.

The disability program, in turn, is an obstacle to working again. Taking a job holds the risk of demonstrating that one can earn a living and is thus no longer entitled to the monthly payments. But staying out of work has consequences. Skills deteriorate, along with the desire for a paying job and the habits that it requires.

"The longer you stay on disability benefits," said Martin H. Gerry, deputy commissioner for disability and income security at the Social Security Administration, "the longer you're out of the work force, the less likely you are to go back to work."

Now I have no basis to know whether these statements are correct, or whether there is independent research to support - or for that matter to discredit - these points. If true, however, they may suggest an independent justification - possibly intended but more likely simply fortuitous - for granting such authority to plans and their administrators, namely that it may counterbalance a disabled employee's own tendency to prefer the safe harbor of disability benefits to the riskier and harder course of returning to work.