Two Reasons Why the Department of Labor's New Fiduciary Regulations Are Likely to Spawn More Litigation Against Financial Advisers
I wrote the other day about the Department of Labor’s legal position in response to lawsuits alleging that its new fiduciary regulations are illegal, and in that post, I referred to why the regulations have provoked such an outcry, which is that they fundamentally change the manner in which many financial advisers and financial firms operate. I came across a perfect demonstration of that point, which is this article explaining how a financial adviser will now have to act when a client asks advice on, or purchases a product for the purpose of, rolling over 401k assets into an IRA. As the article describes, that action will now, under the new rules, come with a host of steps and potential exposure as a fiduciary. Any of you who have done a rollover lately will certainly immediately see that what is described in the article is nowhere near what you just experienced with a rollover.
While the extent of the change is obvious, its worth asking whether the change is for the good or not: the lawsuits challenging the new regulations basically seek to set them aside on technical legal grounds without challenging whether they are valuable to the consumer of the financial products at issue, while the Department of Labor’s response to those legal challenges starts from the premise that the changes at issue are valuable to those consumers. The article on rollovers certainly describes a process that is more labor intensive, more transparent and puts more legal risk on the adviser involved in the process: however, whether that means better outcomes for consumers is the question, one that is at the heart of the dispute between the financial industry and the Department of Labor.
I would also note that the article does a good job, without actually addressing it, of illustrating why many critics of the new rule view at as being likely to increase litigation and as creating new causes of action that don’t currently exist under ERISA itself. First, as the article illustrates, the adviser – under the new rules - becomes a fiduciary subject to ERISA’s fiduciary duties, which have been the foundation for a wide, and ever expanding, range of legal claims. There is no reason to think that assigning fiduciary status to advisers won’t also have that effect here. Second, the contractual exemption for providing advice and collecting a fee in this context, which are detailed in the article, has a realm of provisions that a good lawyer can allege in a given case were breached, providing yet another avenue for constructing a claim against an adviser if an investment product goes south.
Want to Know Everything About the Litigation Over the New Fiduciary Regulations Without Having to Study?
The Department of Labor’s promulgation of its new fiduciary duty and best interest contract exemption regulations is, to this current lawyer and once upon a time public administration student, a case study in administrative law and regulatory action. Rightly or wrongly, whether you substantively agree or disagree with the regulatory initiative, and without regard to whether or not the promulgation is legal, the history of the promulgation provides enough material to teach multiple classes in multiple disciplines. The political battle over the regulatory and accompanying policy shift could sustain a graduate level seminar on public policy for an entire semester; the process of enacting the regulations is a case study in the administrative process; and the legal challenges to their enactment touch on effectively every key aspect of administrative law, statutory interpretation, and regulatory action.
As you can tell from that wind-up, there is a tremendous amount to say about this topic. At this point, we are past the political and regulatory aspects of the endeavor (for now anyway, at least until the next administration), and are onto the legal questions of the validity of the regulations. It took the Department of Labor 105 very well written pages to address those points in this brief filed on July 8th in the District Court for the District of Columbia, and even I have only skimmed it. I question whether anyone not directly involved with the case, or paid to follow it as part of their job, will ever read it any closer than that (although I might, but only if I bring it to the beach as my beach reading).
For those of you who want to understand the Department’s position without skipping the latest paperback thriller while on vacation, I highly recommend this detailed review of the Department’s arguments by Rebecca Moore at Planadviser. Briefly, and in only cursory fashion, I will note that I am fond of the Department of Labor’s argument that they are not boxed into the prior definition of fiduciary and precluded by the statute or congressional intent from changing it, but I will also note that I think the weakest part of their case is over the question of their authority to assert jurisdiction in this manner over IRAs. That and three dollars and a quarter will get you a cup of the daily drip at George Howell Coffee at the Godfrey Hotel nearby.
I would also note a much bigger picture issue, however. If you have only followed the dispute over this regulatory change from a distance, and have wondered about the reason for so much sound and fury, reading the Planadviser story should answer that question for you. You see from the story how much of the world is being upended by the initiative, and that, from the Department’s perspective, the point is to bring the relevant regulatory regime into balance with the realities of the modern financial world. That is quite an undertaking, and cannot help but overturn a lot of apple carts. In America today, if you overturn a lot of apple carts by government action, you get the bees buzzing, to mix my metaphors, in this case in the form of extensive litigation.
A Brief but Reasonably Thorough Intro to the New Fiduciary Standard Being Issued Today
Crazy busy today, but – like someone on the highway slowing down to look at a wreck in the opposite lane even though it is an unnecessary distraction – I of course can’t help but read all the commentary on the new fiduciary rule due out of the DOL today. So for fun – and to distract me from the work I should be doing – I have compiled my favorite stories on it, along with a brief comment or two on each one, below:
• I was basically clickbaited by the headline of this article in the Washington Post into burning one of my free articles for the month to read it, only to basically be told that the rule means that “brokers selling investments to retirement savers would be required to put the client’s interest ahead of their own.” Ehh – if you read this blog, you probably already knew that. Still, it’s a good and readable thirty thousand foot view of the forest, without much specificity.
• If you want to see more of the trees – to continue my forest analogy – I really liked this story in planadvisor, which details the DOL’s explanation for how the rule has been changed to account for industry concerns.
• If you really want to delve down into the trees, here’s the DOL’s fact sheet explaining how it changed the rule to accommodate concerns raised by the industry. I have two thoughts on this fact sheet. First, my internal (and always close to the surface) cynic immediately thought “me thinks you protest too much,” making this big an argument demonstrating how you met your opponents’ concerns. Second, the good governance doobie in me, who resides only slightly below my internal cynic, thought this is exactly what a government agency and regulator should do: listen to affected parties, account for their concerns, address the problems, and explain what was done in response.
• That said, the DOL’s fact sheet on the new rule itself is excellent, and provides real detail on key issues such as the impact of providing financial information to consumers and the best interest exemption.
• And finally for now, I really like Pensions & Investments’ article on it this morning, “Final fiduciary rule exempts plan sponsor education.” Although the title would lead you to believe it is only about the education part of the rule, and the fact that – happily – it will not trigger fiduciary status under the new rule, its actually a very good overview of the key issues in play with the issuance of the new rule today.
The rule comes out later today, but the stories and fact sheets above should give you a thorough preview.
Seeking Shelter from the Storm: the Washington Post on Retirement Readiness
Well, I am not sure how much new there is in this Washington Post article, “A Retirement Storm is Coming,” but I liked it nonetheless. It’s a good story on the problems in retirement financing people face and possible solutions. What I liked most about it are a few points. First of all, people cannot hear often enough that most of them are going to be on their own when it comes to retirement finances; too many people think that social security, the tooth fairy, or pensions of the types their parents had (but not they) are going to finance their retirement, when it is likely that none of these are any more likely than the next to do so. I lump social security in with two things that are seldom spotted – the tooth fairy and pensions – in this regard because, as the article points out, financial realities make it ill-advised for anyone mid-career or younger to assume a particular amount of social security payout in projecting retirement incomes.
I also like the article’s rejection of two things that are, in essence, wishful thinking by many future retirees – that traditional, private employer pensions will come back into vogue or that government programs will be created to solve the retirement crisis. As the author makes clear, the former isn’t coming back, ever, and the latter, given the political climate, is a barely more likely occurrence.
The author looks at these points and comes to the only conclusion that anyone weighing the evidence could come to: that each worker is responsible for his or her own retirement finances, and will have to self-finance retirement. This means a couple of things. First, people should not even begin to think they either can, will, or should be retiring in their early to mid-60s. Even leaving aside the question of whether it is a healthy thing for a healthy person to do, the finances won’t support it for almost every member of the 99%: the time in retirement that needs to be funded will, knock on wood, be too long for most people.
Second, successful retirement investing while working is crucial, and this makes the focus on the costs in 401(k) plans and the risk of conflicted advice by financial advisors important. Anything that makes it more likely that a working person saving for retirement will end up paying more than is necessary for a return on investment that is lower than it should be makes it even harder for people to prepare for retirement. This point could drive an article all on its own, covering topics ranging from fee disclosures mandated by the Department of Labor, to the proposed new definition of fiduciary, to class action litigation over the costs of investment options in 401(k) plans. A topic for another day, but for now, I wanted to pass along these macro level thoughts on the Post’s article.
(By the way, did you catch the allusion in the title of this post? Its our musical moment for Monday).
What Does Spano v. Boeing Foretell About the Future of Excessive Fee Litigation (and about the Future Ruling in Tibble As Well)?
Tom Clark, who writes the excellent Fiduciary Matters Blog, gave me either a late Christmas or an early New Year's present when he forwarded me, last week, the district court's December 30th decision in Spano v. Boeing, which addressed numerous issues related to excessive fee litigation but, in particular, discussed the relationship of ERISA's six year statute of limitations to those types of claims. Tom has now done both you and me an additional favor in this regard, writing up an excellent post summarizing the decision, sparing me the ordeal of writing my own synopsis and you the time consuming - but rewarding - act of reading the opinion itself. You can find Tom's summary and analysis here.
From my perspective, the most interesting aspects of the decision relate to the impact on the theory of liability and on the defendants' theories of the plaintiffs' precision, at this point, in presenting their case. Tom references the same idea in his post, but I will discuss it in more detail here. For years, one thing that has jumped out from many of the district court and appeals court decisions that have run in favor of defendant fiduciaries and plan vendors has been the extent to which the plaintiffs' allegations and theories were of the blunderbuss variety, in which they broadly alleged conflicts of interest and the existence of both high fees and undisclosed revenue sharing. In many of those cases, the plaintiffs essentially never boiled their claims down to narrow, specific allegations (at the motion to dismiss stage) or evidence backed theories (at the summary judgment stage) supporting the existence of a particular fiduciary breach. As a result, the plaintiffs' theories often had holes large enough to drive a truck through, or, at a minimum, the statute of limitations or failure to prove imprudent conduct or whatever other theory was being pressed by the defendants. In many of those decisions, it was clear that a more narrowly and precisely tailored theory of fiduciary breach could have avoided the defenses raised by the plan fiduciaries, sponsors and vendors, forcing, at a minimum, a trial to resolve the claims (and thus likely a settlement of some nature, given the amounts at stake in many of the cases and corporate America's risk adverse nature and resulting preference for avoiding trials). I could walk you through many of those decisions and show you exactly how a more properly and precisely pled theory of fiduciary breach could have survived the motion to dismiss or for summary judgment that instead sunk the case.
Here, though, in Spano, you see a much more focused theory, which is not based simply on the premise that the fiduciaries had broadly erred by retaining and never dispensing with high cost funds, and did not essentially allege simply that certain types of investment or operational decisions are essentially wrong per se. Instead, what you see is a narrow focus on specific decisions and activities by which the fiduciary duty was breached, forcing the defendants - and in turn the Court - to address not whether the type of conduct in general violates fiduciary norms, but instead whether the particular fiduciaries acted imprudently under the specific circumstances that confronted them; that is a much harder claim to get tossed out by means of motion practice, and the Spano decision reflects that.
This is telling, in many ways, for the future, as the plaintiffs' bar gets better and better at framing fiduciary breach claims. As they get better at identifying, isolating and targeting specific alleged misconduct, their win rate is going to go up, and it won't be as common as it has been for prominent appellate rulings or major trial court rulings to go against them.
One other aspect of Spano that is worth highlighting is the Court's detailed treatment of ERISA's six year statute of limitations, given that some of the funds at issue where first selected more than six years before suit was filed, leading the defendants to seek to bar many of the claims related to those funds on the basis that they were time barred. This is, of course, essentially the issue pending before the Supreme Court in Tibble at the moment, and the Spano Court addressed Tibble and the Supreme Court history of that case in reaching its own determination on the statute of limitations issues. Essentially, the Court concluded that it was not enough to defeat the fiduciary breach claims that the original decisions to offer the funds in question occurred more than six years before suit was filed, so long as the plaintiffs could set forth an actionable fiduciary breach that took place within the six years before suit was filed that concerned the funds, above and beyond simply the preceding, and time barred, decision to offer the funds in the first place. Consistent with the theme of this post, the Court found that the plaintiffs had done so by showing, on the law and the facts, how the defendants had committed fiduciary breaches that post-dated the decision to offer the funds in question and within the relevant six year period; once again, the plaintiffs avoided barriers to recovery that had sunk earlier plaintiffs by focusing on the precise facts needed to keep their claims alive, rather than simply making broad and often un-nuanced allegations that could more easily be found to be time barred. And that, incidentally, is exactly what I think the Supreme Court will do in Tibble, finding that, first, the six year statute of limitations does not forever bar claims if the initial offering of the investment option, or selection of it, occurred more than six years before suit was filed, and, second, that instead the six year period is satisfied in those instances where the plaintiff can show a legally actionable breach within the six year period that is independent of the original decision to offer the investment option.
Clearing Out the Attic of My Mind: Notes From ACI's 8th National Forum on ERISA Litigation
With all due apologies to longtime Globe sports columnist Dan Shaugnessy, who would periodically “clean out his desk” by running a column of short bits he had collected, here’s a list, in no particular order, of interesting (to me, anyway) items I took away from ACI’s excellent 8th National Forum on ERISA Litigation in New York City this week, where I spoke on ethical issues in ERISA litigation:
●What a great group of panelists, and thoughtful, educated audience. They reaffirmed my (somewhat narcissistic and self serving) belief that ERISA litigation attracts and holds onto the sharper tools in the bar.
●Day 2 of the conference had an excellent panel on ESOPs, with at least one panelist noting the pervasive problem of conflicted fiduciaries in this area, who may have interests in the outcome of a transaction that are not the same as those of the employee participants in the ESOP. During the course of the day, whether at lunch or by the coffee table outside the meeting room, everyone I spoke to had a horror story about a conflicted ESOP trustee and an ESOP transaction that disserved employees as a result. Isn’t it past time to effectively require the appointment of independent fiduciaries, from outside of the employee owned or soon to be employee owned company, to pass on transactions on behalf of the employee owners?
●I’ve been hearing for years that Broadway is either dead or dying, but you couldn’t tell that from the outdoor advertising at all of the theaters surrounding the conference site. Either all the shows out there right now are the best there’s ever been, or it is truth in advertising, rather than Broadway, that is dead.
●Incidentally, every time I left my hotel I saw a big promo for Bradley Cooper in a new version of Elephant Man on stage. I know everyone’s a critic, but Cooper was the weak link in the American Hustle cast, so I can’t say the promo had me reaching for my wallet.
●Nobody knows nothing, at this point, about what impact Dudenhoeffer will have (I exaggerate slightly, as many panelists and audience members had calculated and well-educated guesses as to the future of stock drop litigation). As I discussed with some members of the audience, one wonders whether the class action bar will go forum shopping with regard to the next round of decision making in this area, looking for the most favorable possible venues for the first of the next round of decisions in this area.
●Speaking of the class action bar, those of its members who were in the audience looked amused when a panelist referenced the class action bar as “sharks.”
●There was an excellent panel on the public pension crisis. It looks to me like the problem will inevitably be left to bankruptcy courts and litigators to sort out, which drives home the extent to which the political will and leadership needed to address the problem is absent.
●One of the most interesting panels to me every year is the insurance industry panel discussing fiduciary liability and other insurance matters related to insuring risks and exposures in the benefit plan industry. It lays the complexity of insurance coverage law (which many lawyers find a very complex area) on top of one of the few areas of the law that exceeds it in complexity, ERISA.
●In the time between the insurance panel’s presentation and getting back to my office, what showed up on my desk but a complicated problem concerning the extent of insurance coverage for an ERISA exposure.
●In the time between my own presentation on ethical issues in litigating ERISA cases and getting back to my office, what showed up on my desk but an ethical conundrum I had never seen nor even thought of before. Grist for the next time I give a presentation on that issue, I suppose.
●The judicial panels on the morning of the second day of the conference are always interesting, and it always catches my attention how many times, and in how many different ways, the judges reference their desire to have the lawyers before them simply act courteously and respectfully to each other in the cases pending before them. One judge commented that, from his seat on the bench, it looks to him that “civil lawyers act criminally to each other and criminal lawyers act civilly to each other.”
●In the time between that judicial panel and my own presentation several hours later, I received at least two emails that documented the judges’ concerns in this regard.
●And I bet so did every other lawyer sitting in the audience.
●There are worse places in the world to watch a World Series game than the West Side Palm in NY.
●I really enjoyed the top hat plan litigation presentation, but that may just be me. There is something I have always found fun about litigating top hat and other executive compensation disputes. Maybe it’s the structure of top hat plan cases, which have a very logical order and composition of issues that can be exploited by a litigator. The presentation matched this, with a focus on the step by step elements of creating top hat status and defending against challenges to it.
●And finally, the panelist who discussed standards of review in ERISA litigation and noted that he may be the only person in the room old enough to remember litigating before Firestone was a treat. Firestone was decided in1989, and, despite nearly 25 years of experience, I never litigated benefit disputes in a pre-Firestone environment, so it was fun to hear, even briefly, how the litigants and the courts addressed the standard of review in the days before Firestone (hint: they typically didn’t).
An Overview of 401(k) Litigation, Courtesy of Chris Carosa's Excellent Interview with Jerry Schlichter
Chris Carosa of Fiduciary News has a tremendous interview with Jerry Schlichter, who has carved out an important niche litigating class action cases against 401(k) plans. Schlichter has litigated nearly all of the key excessive fee cases of the past few years, and currently has one pending before the Supreme Court. I discussed the case he currently has pending before the Supreme Court, Tibble v. Edison, in an article way back after it was decided by the trial court, where I contrasted the trial court’s analysis of the excessive fee issues to that provided around the same time by the Seventh Circuit. You can find that article here.
Chris’ interview with Schlichter is important and valuable reading. The opposite of a puff piece or personality profile, it contains some real thought provoking comments on 401(k) plans and the risks of fiduciary liability, and I highly recommend reading it.
Interestingly, I am speaking next week at ACI’s ERISA Litigation Conference in New York on conflicts of interest and other ethical issues arising with regard to ERISA litigation. Chris, in his interview with Schlichter, goes right to the heart of the question, when he turns the conversation to the “obvious and serious conflicts-of-interest” that can exist in 401(k) plans given their structure, compensation schemes, and the sometimes contradictory interests of fiduciaries, participants and service providers. In the interview, Schlichter provides a nice window for approaching the issue, when he presents three key rules that he believes fiduciaries should follow, which are:
1) Putting participants’ interests first – this should be the beacon that fiduciaries follow; 2) Developing a fully informed understanding of industry practices and reasonableness of service providers’ fees – in other words becoming a knowledgeable industry expert; and, 3) Avoiding self-dealing – you simply cannot benefit yourself in any way.
A great deal of conflicts of interest in this area of the law can be avoided simply by keeping those three principles first and foremost. Indeed, many of the conflict of interest issues that I will be discussing next week on a granular level are violations, on a macro level, of one or the other of those three ideas.
What Does the Moench Presumption Look Like in the Light of the Real World?
One recurring problem in ERISA litigation is the tendency of courts to address and decide novel and complex issues on motions to dismiss, rather than after allowing full development of the factual record. New and original breach of fiduciary duty theories can look entirely different when considered by courts on the full record than they appear when analyzed solely on the pleadings, at the motion to dismiss stage. The excessive fee cases presented this dynamic perfectly, with early decisions, such as Hecker v. Deere, that were resolved on motions to dismiss appearing, in hindsight, to be incorrect in comparison to later decisions, either made after a full factual record was developed, such as in Tibble, or on motions to dismiss after years of litigation had established a broader and more general understanding of the issues raised by those types of claims. One of the underlying themes of my article, “Retreat from the High Water Mark,” was that the early decision on the excessive fee theory in Hecker was flawed, precisely because the court did not have before it a detailed, factual understanding of the nature of the claim and of the fee structure. As a result, the court, by deciding such a novel theory at the motion to dismiss stage, had to assume facts about the mutual fund marketplace and 401(k) plans that were not necessarily true.
My biggest criticism of the Moench presumption, more than its effort to strike a balance between fiduciary obligations under ERISA and securities law obligations imposed on public companies and their officers, is the creation and application of the presumption at the motion to dismiss stage, rather than waiting to see what the evidence shows as to whether corporate insiders underserved the interests of participants when serving as the fiduciary for company stock plans. Just as the history of excessive fee litigation shows, and as I discussed in “Retreat from the High Water Mark,” it is much easier to more accurately determine whether fiduciary obligations are breached when the facts are all before the court, rather than by means of the assumptions, surmise and allegations that can animate decision making in such complex and novel areas at the motion to dismiss stage. The Moench presumption effectively precludes stock drop claims under ERISA, and effectively establishes the governing rule of law for fiduciaries of employer stock plans. The rule and its application may be right, or it may be wrong, but it would be a lot easier to determine that by considering the obligations as fiduciaries of corporate insiders in light of the true facts of their conduct, which the application of the presumption at the motion to dismiss stage – and in fact even its creation without and before any court has ever fully developed and analyzed the facts of such a claim – precludes.
I was thinking of this because Mitchell Shames, who is now an independent fiduciary at Harrison Fiduciary and before that was the long time general counsel for State Street Global Advisors (including during the time that the First Circuit blessed their structure for handling exactly these types of conflicts, in Bunch v. W.R. Grace), has pointed out that corporate insiders serving as fiduciaries in this context do actually face conflicts, and not just in theory. Mitchell has written an excellent post detailing, from firsthand knowledge, the conflicts faced by corporate insiders who are tasked with making investment decisions of this kind for plan participants.
Mitchell writes that when a CEO appoints insiders to make these types of decisions:
everyone takes notice. While CEO lieutenants may be adept at various technical and managerial skills, often, intense loyalty to the CEO is a common attribute. (Dissidents typically do not rise to the C-suite).
This loyalty often includes a precise understanding of the CEO’s goals and priorities with respect to corporate strategy and is often rewarded by promotions, committee appointments, raises, bonuses, stock options and other assorted perks. The senior managers are properly incentivized to advance the vision of the CEO.
Upon assuming a spot on a fiduciary committee, however, these same senior managers are required to shed the very skills that contributed to their corporate rise. When making decisions on behalf of the plans, they are supposed to set aside any allegiance to the CEO, forget about the stock options they may have patiently accumulated over the years, and make decisions irrespective of an impact on corporate earnings.
The potential for conflicts of interest are real; they are not the abstract musings of lawyers and academics. Many transactions squarely put the corporation and the plan on opposite sides, with competing goals.
I was struck, in regards to my concerns about the limitations imposed by “motion to dismiss decision making” and their relationship to the Moench presumption itself, by Mitch’s conclusion, in which he asked: "So, can these corporate offices so deftly switch hats as ERISA lawyers assume? Are fiduciary committee members so professional, so trustworthy, so ethical, that they are immune to the human impulses which gave rise to [the principle that]: 'No one can serve two masters'?"
One wonders whether the Moench presumption would seem to fairly balance the needs of sponsors and participants if it was considered only after a full factual record was created that might show this type of problem with conflicts faced by the fiduciaries. Would the rule seem to make as much sense in that light as it does when a court is faced with only the allegations of a complaint? Would a court reach a different conclusion than at the motion to dismiss stage on this issue if the judge was considering this type of claim after hearing a senior corporate officer who had served as the fiduciary testify as to his understanding of his obligations, conflicts, and the need to balance them?
We can’t know this definitively. What we do know, though, is that it would certainly be a lot better to decide what the legal rule governing stock drop cases should be by first learning all the relevant facts, and then creating the rule, rather than by doing it in reverse (which is essentially where we are right now, with the Moench presumption applied by courts at the pleading stage).
And a Third Post on Tibble: Thoughts on Revenue Sharing and the Small Recovery for the Class
A few more thoughts to round out my run of posts (you can find them here and here) on the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Tibble. First of all, where does revenue sharing go as a theory of liability at this point? The Ninth Circuit essentially eviscerated that theory, and I doubt it has much staying power anymore, at least as a central claim in class action litigation. Revenue sharing hasn’t, generally speaking, had much traction in court, and I think it is because, at some level, judges understand that someone has to pay for the plan’s operations. That said, you should still expect to see it as a claim in cases against DC plans and their vendors, even if only as a tag along, with liability only likely to follow in cases where someone comes up with a smoking gun showing that the plan sponsor acted in ways harmful to participants specifically because of a desire to save money for the plan sponsor through its revenue sharing decisions. But revenue sharing in and of itself as an improper act or a fiduciary breach that can warrant damages? Probably not much of a future for such claims.
Second, there is a lot of talk about the expansion of litigation against DC plans and their providers, and has been for sometime now. How does that fit with the minimal recovery by the class in Tibble? To some extent, Tibble, although affirming a trial court award to the class, is not much of a victory, given that the class only recovered a few hundred thousand dollars. In fact, to call it a victory for the plaintiffs, while correct , reminds me of nothing so much as the comment of British General Henry Clinton after the Battle of Bunker Hill, when he noted, given the extent of British casualties, that “"a few more such victories would have surely put an end to British dominion in America." Likewise, a few more victories similar to this one for class plaintiffs in excessive fee cases will put an end to this area of litigation quicker than anything else could, as these types of cases simply would no longer be worth the costs and risks to the class action plaintiffs’ bar. However, it is important to remember that the dollar value of the recovery in Tibble was likely driven down substantially by the statute of limitations ruling, which took much of the time period of potential overcharging out of the case and with it, presumably much of the recovery. If participants bring suit over fees closer to the time that the investment menu that included the excessive fees was created, they will not face that barrier to recovery and the likely recovery could easily be high enough to justify the risks and costs of suit. This, interestingly, is where fee disclosure should come into play – participants, and thus the plaintiffs’ bar, should have enough information about fees to bring suit early enough to avoid the statute of limitations problem that impacted the plaintiffs in Tibble. As a result, there should be more than enough potential recovery in many possible excessive fee cases to motivate plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue the claims.
A Football Story for Super Bowl Sunday, or Why Alex Smith Would Make a Great Fiduciary
Many, but probably not all of you, know the story of Alex Smith, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Long derided in the early part of his career, he came into his own over the past two seasons, succeeding especially well this past season, according to mathematical standards widely accepted among the football loving public as fair measurements of performance by quarterbacks (I would point out that since these measurements don’t demonstrate that the best quarterback in Sunday’s game – Baltimore’s Joe Flacco – is in fact the best quarterback in Sunday’s game, that they are deeply flawed measuring rods, but that is a story for a different day). It turned out though, that for Mr. Smith, all that statistical success is worth, for now, a grande cup of coffee at Starbucks, assuming he also has two bucks and eight cents on him. This is because he lost his starting job to his backup after an injury, and despite returning healthy within a short time, was never able to regain his job.
Has he pouted, caused trouble for the new quarterback, gone to twitter to rant, or tossed a hissy fit? No, no, no and no, according to all published reports. In fact, again according to all published reports, he has been helping the new quarterback – his former backup and the man who took his job from him – succeed, and has focused on helping the team win the championship.
I am sure Mr. Smith will get another starting job soon as a professional quarterback, but when his football career is over, I have the perfect job for him: ERISA plan fiduciary. I joke somewhat, but the reality is that his story, sketched in outline form above, is a perfect metaphor for the role of a fiduciary. Smith put the team ahead of his own interest, including financial (there’s a lot more money to be made as a starting quarterback, particularly one with a Super Bowl ring on his hand, than as a backup), and has focused on helping his teammates and employer succeed.
Isn’t that exactly what a plan fiduciary is supposed to do? A plan fiduciary is supposed to act prudently in the best interests of the plan participants and on behalf of the plan sponsor, who has placed him or her in that role. It requires, legally speaking, prudent decision making that is in the best interest of the fiduciary’s team – namely the participants and the plan – without regard to whether or not it is beneficial to the fiduciary. In fact, what could be a more accurate description of the prohibited transaction rules, than to say that they preclude a fiduciary from engaging in transactions to his or her own benefit, as opposed to transactions that benefit the plan and the participants? This is essentially the same thing as what Alex Smith has done in his workplace, which is avoid acting in ways that might benefit him at the expense of his teammates (such as undermining the new quarterback), conduct which would likely be seen as prohibited in the culture of his workplace.
Similarly, one can understand the structural conflict of interest rules in deciding claims for benefits as simply a codification of the idea that a plan or its fiduciary must not put its interests ahead of those of plan participants when deciding claims for benefits. Alex Smith, in the context of his work environment, has likewise elected to not favor his interests over those of his teammates, despite the fact that the interests of each conflict. He has, in essence, subjugated his interests – financial and otherwise – in being “the man” to his team’s conflicting interest in having him be a team player as they prepare for the biggest game of the year and, for many of his teammates, of their careers.
Smith has, in effect, demonstrated the exact obligation of putting others first, ahead of his own interest, that the law – both statutory and judicial – imposes on plan fiduciaries. One can also view it in reverse, as well. Imagine the chaos that would erupt in preparing for Sunday’s game if Smith instead took umbrage, undermined his coach or the starting quarterback, or otherwise acted out while his team tried to prepare for the Super Bowl. Not a good situation, one can be sure. Is this any different than the impact a fiduciary has when he puts his interests ahead of those of the plan’s participants? Think, for instance, of the circumstance where the fiduciaries of an ESOP are company officers, who, by dint of that role, may benefit from certain corporate actions that would not benefit, or might harm, employees participating in the ESOP. Acting in their own best interest and in disregard of the interest of the fiduciary’s team, namely the plan participants, would likewise create chaos, in the form of losses to plan participants and inevitable breach of fiduciary duty litigation. At the end of the day, both Smith in his realm and the fiduciary in his realm can make only one correct decision, which is to put the team, in the first instance, or the plan, in the second, first; anything else is a disaster waiting to happen.
So yes, Alex Smith – plan fiduciary. I like it.
Stephan v. Unum, the Attorney-Client Privilege, and the Need for Independent Counsel for Company Officers and Plan Fiduciaries
Tidal Wave! Landslide! Look out below!
Pick out the metaphor of your choice, because Unum just got taken out behind the woodshed by the Ninth Circuit and spanked hard. Frankly, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is a rout in favor of the participant, and participants in general. In many ways, the case presented a perfect storm for such an overwhelming opinion against a long term disability carrier. The case involved: a very sympathetic plaintiff who suffered a horrible, fluke injury that most readers could sympathize with; a lot of money; and a long term disability carrier with a documented history of claim disputes that the court could point to in further support of its ruling. I have to tell you that the facts painted by the Ninth Circuit in this opinion, related to both the claim and the carrier, are clearly of an outlier event, one not representative of the handling of most claims by most long term disability carriers, or of most long term disability carriers at all, for that matter. Twenty years of experience tell me most attorneys representing participants would, even if only off the record, agree with that assessment.
Frankly, despite Unum’s own documented history with regard to claims handling, cited by the Ninth Circuit to support its opinion, I am not sure that the depiction of the carrier in this opinion is even representative of that carrier at this point in time, but I don’t know enough to comment knowingly in that regard.
More importantly though, and moving away from the overflowing kettle of clichés with which I deliberately chose to fill the first couple paragraphs of this post, it would be a shame if courts, participants, companies and their lawyers allowed the unusual nature of the case to become the focus of their attention. This is because there are several key takeaways from this case, some specific to long term disability cases and others, even more important, to ERISA litigation in general.
With regard to these types of benefit claims, one should look closely at the Court’s handling of the structural conflict of interest issue. The Court not only points toward significant discovery and even a possible bench trial over this issue, but also demonstrates how to use the contents of an administrative record in support of proving the impact of such a conflict. This is all strong stuff, and for many who thought the Supreme Court’s structural conflict of interest ruling in Glenn opened up a Pandora’s box or put us all on a slippery slope towards ever expansive, and more expensive, benefits litigation, here is the proof for that hypothesis.
To me, the most worrisome aspect of the decision, and one that sponsors and companies need to pay very careful attention to in terms of planning their benefit operations and obtaining legal services, is the Court’s very broad application of the fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege. The issue here isn’t so much the conclusion that the exception makes internal legal discussions related to a claim subject to disclosure, but the line drawing it demonstrates with regard to when legal advice is, and is not, subject to disclosure. In short, plan administration – including benefit determination issues – are subject to disclosure and not protected. At the same time, though, what is protected is advice related to the protection of fiduciaries against personal liability, civil or criminal, when that advice is clearly distinct from the handling of claims under a plan and the administration of a plan.
Now the interesting thing about that distinction is that, as anyone who litigates breach of fiduciary duty or other ERISA cases knows, there is clearly some overlap between the two types of legal advice and there is not always a clear separation between the two. Certainly a fiduciary sued for misconduct is being sued because of events involving a claim and a plan’s administration, and thus legal advice rendered to the fiduciary falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Further complicating this issue is a fact that the Ninth Circuit points out, which is that plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries often rely on the same lawyers and law firm for advice on all aspects of their plans, from formation to termination and everything in between, including the handling of claims and the representation of officers sued as fiduciaries.
In that latter instance of breach of fiduciary duty litigation against officers, it is crucially important for numerous reasons, as every litigator knows, to have a safe, secure and fully privileged attorney-client relationship. The standards enunciated by the Ninth Circuit, however, place that privilege at some risk in instances in which the same firm that has represented the plan in general is also representing fiduciaries or other company officers with regard to their personal potential liability. The best answer, for numerous reasons, to protecting those fiduciaries and officers, and maintaining the attorney-client privilege that is crucial to their protection, is going to be separating out the representation of such individuals from the routine legal work related to the plan’s formation, operation, administration and claims handling, and using independent, distinct counsel for the representation of such individuals. By segregating out and using separate, independent counsel for any issues related to their potential exposures, you make clear that the legal advice at issue involves privileged issues concerning the potential liability of officers and fiduciaries, which should still be privileged after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and is not intermingled with or otherwise part of the broad range of legal services typically required by a plan, which the Ninth Circuit’s opinion holds is likely to be subject to disclosure.
In short, the pragmatic solution is to continue to use one firm for the overall handling of a plan’s various needs, but separate, independent counsel for any and all needs – whether involving litigation or only the potential risk of litigation or exposure – of a plan’s fiduciaries or the officers of the company sponsoring the plan.
That’s my two cents for now. The case is Stephan v. Unum, and you can find it here.
Do the 1% Have the Same Rights as the 99%?
Sorry, I couldn't resist that relatively timely, but already essentially clichéd headline. That said, its still an interesting way to consider the question of top-hat plans, and their status under ERISA. In particular, there is an open question in most jurisdictions with regard to whether a claim for benefits owed under such a plan proceeds in much the same way, and with the same protections for the participants, as does any other claim for benefits under any other type of ERISA governed plan (i.e., one that, unlike a top-hat plan, does not provide significant deferred compensation for senior executives). There is a significant argument that, as a general rule, the same obligations that ERISA and the Department of Labor impose on administrators in any other circumstance also apply in the circumstance of top-hat plans, with the only exception being areas where the statute or the Department’s regulations expressly exempt top-hat plans.
In this regard, I wanted to pass along this very good synopsis of a recent decision from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in which the court took that exact approach. You can find the case itself here. When the decision was issued in December, I decided not to comment on it because I was litigating a similar top-hat plan dispute at that time, and felt the decision was a little too on-point to a case I was handling for me to comment on, for a number of reasons, running from not wanting to tip my hand to the other side to being a little too close to the issue to be completely objective on the ruling. That case has since resolved, so I thought I would now use the opportunity of the publication of the synopsis to pass it along.
There is also an important trap for the unwary lawyer reflected in the decision and the synopsis, which is the impact of ERISA rights and remedies, as well as procedures and procedural protections, on what are in essence employment agreements, if they are deemed ERISA governed top-hat plans. If a particular agreement might be a top-hat plan, it is important to recognize that at the outset and litigate any dispute over it accordingly. As the synopsis and the decision show, the application of ERISA based rules will dictate the outcome, and failing to know that a particular agreement is a top-hat plan and will be governed by such rules at the outset of handling a dispute is a recipe for disaster, or at least for losing; one has to be aware right at the outset that the dispute cannot be litigated as a traditional contract or employment dispute, but instead as an ERISA dispute. Otherwise, you are bringing a knife to a gunfight, to borrow a favored cliché.
The court's decision itself, by the way, is a terrific road map through the current state of the law on benefit litigation under ERISA, particularly in the First Circuit, for both top-hat and regular old employee benefit claims.
How Much Has MetLife v. Glenn Changed the World?
I have been blogging long enough that I can bore people by pontificating about how blogging was easier back in the old days. It’s actually true though, to some extent, at least with regard to my blog, and that’s because when I first started blogging, Paul Secunda, at the Workplace Prof blog, was still posting regularly on scholarly and legal developments concerning ERISA. He has stepped back from doing that over the past couple of years, leaving me with one less source of ready made analysis and commentary to mine.
Paul has stepped back into the salt mines, though, with this interesting post on the Third Circuit’s recent consideration of conflicts of interest under the MetLfe v. Glenn rubric. On some levels, I agree with Paul’s comment in his post that he doubts the new regime ushered in by Glenn will change the outcome of many denied benefit cases, only I agree with him from the opposite perspective: it was always my opinion that, in the courtroom, the evidence typically pointed the way to the right result regardless of the existence or non-existence of what has come to be known as a structural conflict of interest on the part of the decision maker. As I wrote in many posts back in the era when different circuits had different approaches to this issue, leading eventually to the Glenn ruling, it was more often than not my experience that the administrative record in a given case could tell you whether the decision was improperly influenced by outside factors - i.e., anything other than the facts of the participant’s claim - and thus there was generally no evidentiary reason to care one way or the other whether the decision maker, independent from what the administrative record itself showed, was acting with a conflict.
What is interesting to me at this point about this topic is that we are probably far enough along into the post-Glenn world that an academic could sit down with pre- and post-Glenn denied benefit decisions from the courts and analyze, in a statistically accurate manner, whether the Glenn rules have had a measurable impact on the outcome of these types of case. How about it, Paul? Time to bring the law and statistics movement to bear on ERISA questions?
On Disclosure and Conflicts of Interest
In my life as a trial lawyer, I have found myself in a recurrent situation, in which a judge or an arbitrator eventually looks at me in an argument over discovery and asks if I really want the information I am after, as it could run against me. I always answer the same way, to the effect that I am comfortable with facts, believe that more information is more likely to lead to the just result in the case, that I will trust the facts to show us which way to go, and that I am more than willing to let the facts come out in the open and drive the case. Now, the truth is that, before ever seeking the discovery that is at issue, I will have long since thought through the subject and become convinced that the evidence in question, once brought out, is far more likely to help my case than to harm it; the reality, from a tactical perspective is that, otherwise, I would not have pressed the point in the first place, with me going so far as to ask a court or arbitration panel to order production of the witness, or documents, or whatever else is in question. That said though, my response - to the effect that I favor the facts coming to light - is a true sentiment. Facts are stubborn things, in the classic formulation, and they decide cases; I am more than happy to have them see the light of day. Heck, I would certainly like to know of them while I can do something about them, even if they are bad for my case, than have them just show up for the first time out of some witness’ mouth on the stand in the middle of a trial.
I thought of this when I read this investment manager’s discussion of the Department of Labor’s expansion of the term fiduciary, which I discussed in my last post, and of the Department’s various initiatives related to fee disclosure, in particular his discussion of lobbying against those actions. Like facts in a lawsuit, the facts of revenue sharing, fees, and the like belong in the open, and can do nothing at the end of the day but improve outcomes for participants, plan sponsors, fiduciaries and the better advisors. What’s wrong with a little sunshine, a little transparency, and a lot of disclosure in this context? Frankly speaking, probably nothing. Participants will eventually end up with better outcomes, while plan sponsors and fiduciaries will have the information needed to best do their jobs, which will - if they use the information right - make them far less likely to get sued or, if sued, be held liable for fiduciary breaches. Meanwhile, we all know that advisors get paid fees, as of course they should; the only change is that everyone involved in the decision making will know who is getting paid what and for what exact services. Under that - possibly excessively rosy - view of the world, the end result should just be that the better advisors, who are providing better products and services at better prices, will get more of the business. What’s wrong with that, from a forest eye view?
You Say Potato, I Say Potato: Two Different Understandings of What Discretionary Review Means
This is interesting. I have written before on this blog, on numerous occasions, about courts sometimes engaging in a more searching level of discretionary review that, in essence, is not discretionary review at all, at least in the manner it has long been traditionally understood. The common belief, and applied in that way by many and probably most courts over the years, is that discretionary - sometimes called arbitrary and capricious - review means that an administrator’s decision in a long term disability case must be upheld if there is significant medical evidence in the administrative record to support the administrator’s determination, and that the process of weighing the different pieces of evidence in the medical record - much of which may be conflicting - belongs to the administrator; the court, applying this type of review, is normally understood to not engage in its own independent weighing of that evidence. Actually looking into and weighing that conflicting evidence to decide whether the administrator was correct was traditionally understood to be part of de novo review, not discretionary review.
However, as I have commented in the past, court decisions in this area reflect a subtle shift away from granting that much discretion to the administrator and towards analyzing the credibility and weight of the evidence supporting the administrator’s decision, even as part of discretionary review. Essentially, while applying discretionary review, some courts have begun to look more closely at the evidence to decide whether to uphold the administrator’s decision, finding that the decision is arbitrary if the court disagrees with the administrator over the value of or weight to be given to certain aspects of the administrative record. It’s a gradual and subtle shift in jurisprudence, but one that exists and that can change the outcome of a long term disability case, by affecting exactly how the court reviews the record and the administrator’s decision. The developing jurisprudence over structural conflicts of interest has provided still greater impetus to, and opportunities for, this shift.
Roy Harmon at his always excellent Health Plan Law blog had a perfect example of this in a post yesterday, concerning a Ninth Circuit ruling in which the appeals court looked behind the medical evidence to weigh it in deciding a long term disability case, finding that the evidence, looked at closely, did not support the administrator’s determination. In contrast, though, you can see in that same case how the district court applied a more traditional understanding of discretionary review, which does not involve independently analyzing the evidence in that manner, to find that the administrator’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious since it was supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. The end result is that you can compare in this case the effect on the same facts of these two different approaches to applying discretionary review, with the more traditional view of it - applied by the district court - resulting in a win for the administrator - and the more searching and activist approach - applied by the Ninth Circuit - resulting in a win by the participant.
You Say Potato, I Say Potahtoe: Structural Conflicts of Interest After Metropolitan Life
Geez, I certainly don’t mean anything by it, but in its application by the courts, this new “structural conflict of interest” rule imposed by the Supreme Court in Metropolitan Life v. Glenn seems to be just as open to variation from circuit to circuit as was the case with the highly variegated rules across the circuits on this issue that predated it. Some circuits appear to be treating the standard as little more than a variation on the themes that preceded it; for instance, my take at this point in the First Circuit is that the standard now means that discovery is proper to explore whether the conflict affected the outcome and, if it did, than that should be taken into account; I have to say, I am having trouble seeing how this is much different than the circuit’s rule pre- Metropolitan Life, which held that a structural conflict was only relevant if it had an actual impact on the outcome. I suppose one change is that the rule now allows discovery into that question, before a court rules on that point - as occurred here - which wasn’t necessarily the case in this circuit prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling. On the other end of the spectrum is a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit, discussed here, which can be fairly understood as treating the existence of the structural conflict as a legitimate basis for engaging in de novo review by another name; it is hard to read this analysis of that decision without viewing the court as having conducted a de novo review of the evidence in light of the structural conflict and using that as the basis for decision making. Variety is the spice of life, I guess, and has long been the norm when it comes to the handling by different circuits of the same issues arising under ERISA. Although Metropolitan Life appears to have standardized those rules with regard to one issue - namely the effect of “structural conflict of interests” - to some degree, it hasn’t come close to putting the treatment of that issue on the same page in every circuit.
Comments on First Circuit Law Post-Glenn
I thought I would post some thoughts and comments on the First Circuit’s pronouncement of its law after Glenn, before too much more time goes by, rather than waiting for a window of time that would allow me to write a much longer post on it. Some things that sit too long get stale, and comments on new, noteworthy opinions fall in that category, so here are my thoughts. First, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, a First Circuit panel has now issued an opinion detailing how the First Circuit will handle structural conflict of interest situations in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Glenn. You can find the opinion here. Of note, the panel goes out of its way to paint prior, pre-Glenn, First Circuit decisions as not particularly different than the holding in Glenn, and to a certain extent this is true: prior First Circuit precedent had required that structural conflicts only affect the outcome if there was a showing that the conflict had actually impacted the benefit determination, and in many ways this is very consistent with the holding in Glenn that consideration of the structural conflict is only one aspect of the review and that such a conflict is essentially irrelevant if the evidence shows the conflict was cabined in a way that demonstrates it played little or no role in the outcome.
Second, and of particular note, the panel made clear that it was only dealing with the specific issue at play in Glenn, namely the impact of a structural conflict of interest. The court indicated that the rule may well be different in the presence of evidence showing that there was an actual conflict that motivated the outcome, and that a change in the standard of review might continue to be appropriate under that circumstance. In essence, while withholding judgment on what rule it might adopt in that circumstance after Glenn, the First Circuit is distinguishing between arguments that begin from the premise that there was a structural conflict of interest - the Glenn type scenario - and arguments based on the idea that the administrator was actually subjectively motivated by a conflict; the court made clear that only the former scenario is governed by its new decision applying the Glenn rubric.
Third, in an aspect of its decision that provoked the ire of one member of the Panel who wrote a concurring opinion specifically to challenge the opinion’s analysis of this issue, the case holds that the First Circuit’s prior rulings on discovery in denial of benefits cases - that little is to be allowed and it is disfavored - remain in effect and are consistent with Glenn. Of even more interest and practical concern going forward, though, is the court’s conclusion that, rather than engage in discovery into the possible impact of a structural conflict of interest on a decision, it is incumbent upon administrators to make the evidence of the cabining and lack of impact of such a conflict part of the administrative record compiled during the administrator’s handling of a claim. If there is a functional impact of the First Circuit’s ruling on plan administrators, it is this one - the need to evidence the lack of importance of the structural conflict in the administrative record itself.
The Seventh Circuit Puts a Spin on Discretionary Review
There is an interesting twist to a recent Seventh Circuit decision, Leger v. Tribune Company Long Term Disability Plan. The decision starts out as an attempt by the participant to resuscitate her benefits claim by invoking Glenn v. MetLife and asserting that a structural conflict of interest existed warranting an alteration to the standard of review. The Seventh Circuit, though, quickly rejected that position, finding that there wasn’t even a conflict of a level that warranted being considered as a factor in conducting an arbitrary and capricious standard of review. Uh oh, says the reader, we know how this story ends: the conflict of interest argument in this context signifies in most decisions that the participant has no other hook to hang her claim on, and is taking her last, desperate shot, dooming her when, as in this opinion, the court summarily rejects the argument. But the Seventh Circuit surprises here, as this issue is not the last one addressed, but is instead simply a signpost along the way to the ultimate conclusion and to the application by the court of what, in most cases, is not an approach one sees taken. Rather than stopping with the standard analysis that, one, the conflict of interest doesn’t change anything, and, two, there is reasonable support in the record for the decision to terminate benefits, thus ending the case, the court continued from there, finding, instead, that the decision, despite having support in the record, failed to account for numerous conflicting pieces of evidence contained in the administrative record or possible interpretations justified by the record. The court held that the decision to terminate could not be sustained in that circumstance, and that, instead, the issue had to go back to the administrator for purposes of making a decision that did, in fact, take all such concerns into account (the court actually just remanded it to the district court for proceedings consistent with its ruling, but one presumes this would mean remanding it back to the administrator to address these issues, followed by litigating the issues all over again).
I have commented in the past on this point - the question of courts applying a more searching level of review while nominally still proceeding under the arbitrary and capricious standard of review is much more significant both to parties and to the development of the law in this area than is the question of whether conflicts exist, and if so their impact.
Adapting to Glenn in the Second Circuit
I noticed in my statistics package for the blog that this past Thursday, Christmas Day, had the lowest readership of this blog in months. Come on people, ERISA is for everyday, not just workdays! And here’s why. The day before Christmas, the Second Circuit issued its ruling adjusting its case law on benefit determinations where a structural conflict of interest exists to accord with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in MetLife v. Glenn. In a well reasoned and highly logical opinion, the court first acknowledged that its prior case law on the issue was no longer proper, in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, because it had gone too far: the Second Circuit previously held that a structural conflict of interest meant that de novo review applied, even if the plan documents granted the administrator discretionary authority over benefit determinations, which normally invokes a deferential standard of court review. However, as the Second Circuit recognized, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Glenn meant that a structural conflict of interest could not be the basis for abandoning the deferential standard of review, but that, instead, it could only be considered as a factor to be weighed in applying the deferential standard to decide whether the administrator’s decision should be set aside as an abuse of discretion. Nothing controversial or particularly exciting there, as it reflects an accurate, almost verbatim reading of Glenn, although it is interesting to watch the way the Glenn decision, seen as one that broadens the protections available to plan participants, actually, in at least some instances such as this one in the Second Circuit, requires a lessening of the protections previously granted to participants in such jurisdictions in cases involving structural conflicts of interest. The Second Circuit previously allowed such a conflict to change the standard of review entirely, all the way back to a de novo review, which the Second Circuit, in its most recent ruling, now recognizes is not allowed under Glenn.
What is more interesting, though, is how the Second Circuit applied the new standard. By relying on the leeway the Supreme Court in Glenn granted courts to determine, based on the actual facts of the claim and the parties’ activities, how much weight to give to the conflict, the Second Circuit, in essence, applied what may as well have been de novo review to decide the case, only without putting such a label on it. Instead, accepting the Supreme Court’s invitation to review the actual facts of a particular case to decide how much weight to put on a conflict, the Second Circuit gave great weight - essentially outcome determinative weight - to the conflict, in a way that essentially mirrored de novo review.
The case is McCauley v. First Unum.
Recent Case Law on Extra-Administrative Discovery After Glenn
When people start emailing you to inquire about your health, you know you have been away from your blog too long. Rumors of my demise, however, were premature, as I was simply on vacation; normally I keep up with developments and am able to put up some posts while away, but I didn’t get a chance to this time. A number of interesting things did cross my desk while I was away, and a number of them I read remotely while out; I will try to pass along the more interesting pieces over the next few days.
For starters though, my colleague Patrick Spangler at Vedder Price in Chicago passed along a survey of some recent discovery rulings by the federal courts related to whether extra-administrative record discovery should be allowed in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in MetLife v. Glenn. They find that such discovery is warranted under Glenn, but only if linked to the possibility of proving biased decision making. Patrick notes:
In Hogan-Cross v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 2008 WL 2938056, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. July 31, 2008) the Southern District of New York compelled written discovery seeking information related to: (1) denial rates; and (2) the compensation structure for the claims representatives who evaluated the participant’s claim. However, the Southern District previously granted the participant’s motion to compel and simply confirmed its decision on Metlife’s motion to reconsider in light of Glenn, reasoning that the requests were appropriate under existing Second Circuit law and further supported by Glenn.
The Northern District of Texas reached a similar conclusion in Copus v. Life Ins. Co. of N.A., 2008 WL 2794807, at *1-2 (N.D. Tex. 2008). The court reasoned that a history of biased decisionmaking and steps taken by the administrator to reduce a conflict are relevant and should be considered under Glenn. Incorporating existing Fifth Circuit precedent, the Court allowed discovery on a variety of topics, including: (1) the selection of the claims reviewer; (2) steps taken by the administrator to reduce the conflict; (3) the compensation system for claims reviewers, and (4) any claims procedures or manuals.
The decisions are similar to Dubois, a case out of the United States District Court for Maine that I discussed previously, which addressed when such discovery is appropriate in light of Glenn and found, like these other two decisions, both that: (a) it is appropriate if necessary to evidence biased, conflicted decision making; and (b) existing circuit precedent on the issue was consistent with Glenn and could govern the question.
Notes for a Friday
Permalink | I thought I would pass along a couple of things of interest that I read this week, before next week starts up with its own events. Taking up where my comments on the status of extra-administrative record discovery in the aftermath of MetLife v. Glenn left off, Roy Harmon has this post on a Ninth Circuit decision pointing out that MetLife v. Glenn in fact expands the availability of such discovery. Meanwhile, Michael Fox (no, not that Michael Fox; see e.g. Reilly, “Hey, what's-your-name! I love you”), really one of the founding fathers of employment law blogging, has nice things to say about the Boston ERISA and Insurance Litigation blog, along with a useful list of blogs worth reading that cover the employment law field. And finally for today, the WorkPlace Prof passes along an entertaining essay on the three competing decisions in the LaRue case, which provides a humorous take on an issue that I talked about here, concerning the differing approaches of each opinion to the problems raised by the LaRue case.
That’s plenty to read on Friday.
What Effect Does MetLife v. Glenn Have on Discovery in Denial of Benefit Claims?
Permalink | 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.
A Middle of the Road Supreme Court?
Permalink | Here is an interesting article in which a former Solicitor General argues that the popular - and perhaps a little bit intellectually lazy - characterization of the current Supreme Court as “pro-business” may, at a minimum, be overstating the case a bit. Certainly, the ERISA rulings out of the Court this past term were hardly pro-employer or pro-business community, as both LaRue and MetLife v. Glenn weakened the defenses of plan sponsors and administrators and, at least in the case of LaRue, opened up new lines of potential liability. It is hard to argue that these rulings were pro-business at all, except perhaps from the perspective of those critics who felt that the Court actually didn’t go far enough in favor of claimants in its opinion in MetLife and should have instead drastically altered the nature of the standard of review applicable to cases presenting the circumstances at issue in that case, something the Court certainly did not do in its opinion. In that sense, with regard to the ERISA rulings, it would be much fairer to characterize the Court rulings as moderate and middle of the road, than as anything else.
On Intoxication and Accidental Death and Dismemberment Policies
Permalink | I wrote a long time back about Stamp v. MetLife, a decision out of the United States District Court for Rhode Island on a particular, oft litigated, and unfortunately frequently repeated fact pattern: namely, whether an unwitnessed automobile accident causing death of an apparently intoxicated driver constituted an accident for purposes of ERISA governed accidental death policies. The First Circuit has now entered its opinion in that case, finding, consistent with what appears to be almost every other federal court to weigh in on the issue, that an administrator can rightly deny benefits for such a death on the ground that the evidence of intoxication indicates that the death should not be deemed an accident for purposes of an accidental death and dismemberment policy governed by ERISA. For those of you not in the know on this issue, such policies limit benefits to deaths caused by accident, and this body of case law supports an administrator’s denial of benefits on the ground that the death was not an accident when the evidence supports the conclusion that the deceased was operating under the influence at the time of death.
There are a few things of interest about the opinion that warrant further reading. In the first instance, the case lays out the proper manner by which a court should consider an administrator’s review of this particular type of scenario, and what type of discretion is granted to that review. Second, there is a nice paragraph summarizing what the First Circuit deems to be a developing federal common law granting an administrator the ability to deny such claims despite the lack of any definitive, eyewitness evidence as to whether the intoxication was actually the cause of the automobile accident and the resulting death. And finally, and of import to ERISA practitioners who may care not one wit for the law governing the application of accidental death policies to cases of driving under the influence, the court weighs in with what I believe is the First Circuit’s first application of MetLife v. Glenn to the question of conflicts of interest by an administrator.
From Preemption to ERISA Standing, and Lots of Things In-Between
Permalink | Philadelphia, New York, court hearings - I have been everywhere the past week or so other than at my desk where I could put up blog posts. Here’s a run down of interesting things I came across along the way that you may want to read. First, for those of you who can’t get enough of this topic - I know I can’t, but then I am fascinated enough by this stuff to maintain an entire blog on the subject of ERISA - Workplace Prof passed along this student note on preemption and “pay or play” statutes: Leslie A. Harrelson, Recent Fourth Circuit Decisions: Retail Industry Leaders Ass'n v. Fielder: ERISA Preemption Trumps the "Play or Pay" Law, 67 Maryland L. Rev. 885 (2008).
Second, SCOTUS passed along that the Supreme Court decided not to accept for hearing Amschwand v. Spherion Corp., which, I noted in a previous post, presented an opening for the Court to address when monetary awards for breaches of fiduciary duty can qualify as equitable relief that can be sought under ERISA. I have commented before that the Court has advanced the ball on equitable relief under ERISA into almost untenable terrain, and I am not sure whether the Court can bring any greater clarity to the issue without backtracking from its recent jurisprudence on the subject; given the unlikeliness of the Court doing so already with regard to such relatively recent decisions, it is probably just as well that the Court did not take on the issues presented by that case.
Third, you could learn everything you need to know about the standards of review for benefit denials and the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in MetLife v. Glenn by clicking on the “Standard of Review” topic over on the left hand side of this blog; or you could spend an hour listening to this webinar on the topic.
Fourth, Pension Risk Matters passes along this Sixth Circuit decision enforcing the Supreme Court’s approach to individual claimants in LaRue, finding that two participants could sue for breach of fiduciary duty. There are two particularly interesting side notes about this. First, it illustrates a particular point I - and others - made in a number of media outlets after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in LaRue, namely that, while it may not result in an avalanche of litigation that otherwise would not have been filed, the ruling is certainly going to lead to an increase in the filing of smaller cases on behalf of a few participants in circumstances that, in the past, would not have generated suits unless a class wide action could be brought. Second, the case presages what may be the dying off, by a thousand cuts, of the long held use of standing to cut off ERISA breach of fiduciary duty suits at the earliest stages of procedural wrangling, long before any litigation over the merits of a case, something which occurred at the federal district court level in the original LaRue case itself. Roy Harmon, over at his Health Plan Law blog, has a detailed analysis of this question, one I have been thinking about since LaRue was decided but which Roy has thankfully saved me from addressing in detail at this point.
The Supreme Court's Ruling in MetLife v. Glenn
Permalink | How dare the Supreme Court issue a major ERISA ruling while I am tied up in court this morning! How inconsiderate of my schedule. Given that there are only a few of us blogging regularly on these issues, seems to me the least the Court could have done is coordinate the release of its opinion in MetLife v. Glenn - concerning the effect of structural conflicts of interest on judicial review of an administrator’s decision - with each of us (yes, I am talking about you, Paul, and Roy, and Brian, and Suzanne, and whoever else I am forgetting about right now).
Either way, here is the decision, and here is the Workplace Prof’s take on it. For the most part, the Court pretty much did exactly what I said it would after the oral argument: decide that structural conflicts must be taken into account in passing on an administrator’s decision, even under a deferential standard of review, without making any sort of significant change to the general rubric for passing on an administrator’s determination in such circumstances. As I have said in the past, the variety of approaches to this issue taken by different circuits mandated that the Court, as it did today, impose some sort of overall rule governing the issue. However, as the concurring and dissenting justices point out, the majority did so, but without really imposing any clear guidance as to exactly how the lower courts should apply the conflict. Rather, the majority simply established that it was a factor to be considered when conducting discretionary review; does not alter the standard of review itself (i.e., render discretionary review instead de novo); and is not a factor to be considered by applying any particular rubric for analysis.
Personally, and as I have argued in posts in the past, my own experience in the courtroom makes me favor what turned out to be the Chief Justice’s take, not accepted by the majority, that the rule should simply be that the conflict can only be taken into account in reviewing the administrator’s decision upon proof that the administrator’s decision was animated or otherwise affected in some manner by the conflict. The actual play of evidence in litigation makes this a workable standard, and establishes some guidance as to exactly how courts, passing on challenges to administrators’ determinations, are to analyze structural conflicts of interest. The majority rule leaves the question of how the structural conflict is to affect any particular determination amorphous and unpredictable.
Why Structural Conflicts of Interest, Standing Alone, Are Irrelevant
Permalink | 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.
Some Thoughts on the Oral Argument in MetLife v. Glenn
Permalink | I had a chance over the weekend after a busy few days to ruminate on the oral argument in MetLife v. Glenn, a transcript of which you can find here; you can find Workplace Prof’s review of the argument here and a thorough recap of the argument here, at SCOTUS blog. My take? There will be some sort of rule announced governing the standard of review that a court is to apply when presented with an appeal from a decision by an administrator functioning under a so-called structural conflict of interest - how’s that for going out on a limb, since that’s what the Court accepted cert to address? Moreover, there can’t help but be a rule of general applicability of some type set forth by the Court for these situations, since, as I discussed in detail here for instance, there is wide divergence among the circuit courts of appeals in the decision making rules they apply when confronted with that situation; given the idee fixe that ERISA is supposed to give rise to uniform rules governing employee benefits across the country (an idea that in practice, tends to be honored more in the breach, something particularly illustrated at the district court level where you can often find two judges in the same circuit reaching opposite conclusions on the same open issue), this is not a situation that can be allowed to continue. That said, however, those hoping this case would lead to a wholesale reinterpretation of the standards of review that apply to ERISA cases, and more particularly to an overall rejection of both the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review and of the existing formulations as to when that standard of review applies, are going to be soundly disappointed; I read the argument as telegraphing a fixation on determining, and creating (and then announcing), exactly what the technical rule should be when arbitrary and capricious review is applied by a supposedly conflicted administrator, and as telegraphing a lack of interest in changing the overall structure of the case law governing the standard of review question.
MetLife v Glenn in a Nutshell
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is holding oral argument in MetLife v. Glenn, the case that will supposedly tell us once and for all what the effect is on ERISA litigation when the party who has to pay ERISA governed benefits is also the one who decides whether to pay those benefits. Given the Court’s history when it comes to addressing issues related to litigating ERISA cases, starting with Sereboff (at a minimum) and running up through the recent ruling in LaRue, you can predict that the Court’s ruling will add as many questions and issues to litigating such cases as it will resolve. I have discussed before here on this blog my view that the actual evidence in a particular case should be the basis for deciding how to handle any particular instance in which one party is both the administrator and the payor, and that it is specious to instead impose and enforce blanket assumptions that a meaningful conflict always exists in such situations. But I can tell from the responses to my prior posts to this effect how many people simply don't agree with me on that, and this case offers the Court the opportunity to make the call on that one. In any event, now that I have whet your whistle for all things Glenn, you can find all things Glenn, including everything you need to know in advance of the oral argument if this is something of interest to you, right here.
Supreme Court to Weigh In on Structural Conflicts of Interest
Permalink | I suggested some time ago that the Supreme Court looked poised to weigh in on some of the more tempestuous ERISA issues floating around the circuit courts of appeal, and there is probably no single issue that has raised more hackles than the question of so-called structural conflicts of interest, which exists when the administrator who decides a claim for benefits under ERISA is also the party who will have to pay the benefits if the claim is allowed. The lower courts have created a wide range of rules as to how, and when, such a conflict can alter the standard of review that a district court is to apply when passing on a benefit determination made by such an administrator.
SCOTUSBlog reported on Friday that the Supreme Court has now accepted cert on a case presenting this exact issue. To quote SCOTUS:
An ERISA case added to the docket tests whether the manager of an employee benefit plan has an illegal conflict of interest if the plan gives that individual the authority both to pay benefits and to rule on eligibility for benefits (MetLife v. Glenn, 06-923). In addition to that question, the Court added a second issue to be addressed: if that is a conflict of interest, how should that be taken into account by a court reviewing a specific benefit decision. The Sixth Circuit Court, in conflict with some federal appeals courts but in agreement with others, ruled that the dual role of funding and decider for plan administrators is a potential conflict of interest that must be weighed in judging a plan manager’s benefit eligibility ruling.
There is certainly benefit to the Court weighing in on this issue and hopefully adding some conformity across the federal courts on this issue; as I have discussed in other posts, such as here, different rules apply to this type of situation in different circuits, and it obviously makes no sense for a federal statute to be interpreted and applied differently dependent simply on the state in which a lawsuit over the issue is filed. However, as I have argued before in these digital pages, I think the whole issue of this so-called structural conflict of interest is something of a tempest in a teapot, and I do not agree with those, such as the Workplace Prof in his post on this same subject, who think that the mere existence of such a dual role on the part of the administrator warrants treating the decision maker as suspect and the decision as unworthy of the deference normally granted to an administrator operating under the appropriate grant of discretionary authority. Rather, either there is evidence before a court from which it can be determined or at least inferred that the administrator’s dual role affected the outcome, or there isn’t. While it may make sense to take that conflict into account in the former instance, where evidence exists that the administrator actually acted in a conflicted manner, there is no logical basis to do so in the latter instance; in the absence of evidence that the dual role actually affected the outcome, changing the standard of review constitutes nothing more than punishing the administrator simply based on its status, and not on evidence of misconduct. Last I looked, that’s not generally how we do things in the courts of this country.
Two for the Price of One: An Excellent District Court Ruling Worth Reading, and More on the First Circuit's Decision in Gillis
Permalink | A couple of notes on cases today. Before the holidays, I posted about the First Circuit’s decision in Gillis, concerning an administrator’s discretion in calculating possible pension payments and how the discretionary authority granted to the administrator drove the conclusion that a challenge to the pension calculations would not be upheld in the courts. Suzanne Wynn, who writes on pension plan issues at her Pension Protection Act blog, has this very detailed analysis now of the issues concerning cash balance conversions that were at play in Gillis, for those of you looking for more information on that aspect of the case.
In addition, in the little window of time between the first holiday weekend of Christmas and the second holiday weekend of the New Year, Judge Woodlock of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued a very comprehensive and detailed opinion in the case of Island View Residential Treatment Center, Inc. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which basically reads as a mini-treatise on a number of interesting issues arising in ERISA litigation. In the opinion, the judge covers, among other topics: standing to bring an ERISA claim; the application of federal common law to ERISA disputes; the statute of limitations applicable to ERISA disputes; exhaustion of administrative remedies; and the standard of review. Of particular note with regard to the standard of review, the judge presents the current status of the law in the First Circuit concerning so-called structural conflict of interests, which I have discussed many times on this blog, most recently in my post yesterday, and identifies the internal debate in the circuit over whether the law on that issue should be revised, a bone of contention in the circuit that I also noted before, in my post yesterday. Judge Woodlock comments that it appears the First Circuit may be waiting for possible guidance from the Supreme Court in the case of MetLife v. Gillis, discussed in yesterday's post, before venturing into that issue. And finally with regard to the Island View case, I think, in a blogger’s version of professional courtesy, I would be remiss if I did not mention that one of the parties to the case was represented by fellow law blogger Brian King out of Utah, who blogs on ERISA issues - from what is probably a decidedly more participant oriented perspective than my own - at his excellent ERISA Law Blog.
Will the Critics Get Their Wish? The Supreme Court Gives Some Thought to Structural Conflicts of Interest
Permalink | Unlike me, Appellate Law and Practice, the scrivener who covers all things appellate, didn’t take New Year’s Eve off, and noted that day that the federal government had recommended that the Supreme Court accept cert in a case addressing the question of how a structural conflict of interest - that is, where the administrator who is deciding benefits under an ERISA governed plan is also the party responsible for paying such benefits if they are awarded - should affect the standard of review applied by a court to a challenge to a benefit determination. SCOTUSBlog sums up the issue here, noting that the government recommended granting cert in the case of “MetLife v. Glenn, limited to the question presented of whether an ERISA plan administrator that both evaluates and pays claims operates under a conflict of interest that must be weighed on judicial review of benefit determinations.”
The question of how this type of situation should affect the standard of review has been subject to a variety of answers in a variety of different circuits, as surveyed here, and the current rules concerning this issue have been subject to extensive academic and judicial criticism, to the point that in the First Circuit, appellate panels have criticized the rules governing the issue even as they have applied them. Personally, I am not convinced that the dispute over the issue isn’t really academic to a certain extent, in that, in the realpolitik world of litigation, it has been my experience that the underlying facts point towards the right outcome regardless of the standard of review applied in cases involving such alleged structural conflicts; I won’t reiterate that entire argument here, but you can find some of it here in this post.
Anyway, there is obviously enough background noise in the system over this particular issue of so-called structural conflicts of interest that it would make sense for it to be on the Supreme Court’s radar, and probably eventually its docket. I have noted before that I think the Supreme Court is looking for vehicles to weigh in on some of the more problematic areas of ERISA jurisprudence, and I think you see another instance of that here.
What Critics of The Standard of Review In Cases Involving Structural Conflicts of Interest Are Really Complaining About
Permalink | There’s a very interesting long term disability decision that was just issued by the District of New Hampshire that is worth a read, not so much for the case itself as for its commentary concerning the standard of review under ERISA in instances where the administrator has been granted discretionary authority by the plan. The court’s facts and the reasoning themselves are nothing out of the ordinary: the arbitrary and capricious standard applies, there is enough evidence in the record to support the administrator’s denial, and thus the administrator’s decision is, quite properly under current law, upheld. But what is interesting is the court’s discussion of its views as to the standard of review and how it affects the outcome of the case, and how those comments shed some light on the criticism that is out there of the law governing the standard of review.
The court acknowledged that the insurer of the plan, which was also the administrator of claims under the plan, had “fully and carefully reviewed [the claimant]'s medical history and thoroughly investigated her claims,” and that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the insurer’s denial of the claim for benefits; the court, however, nonetheless went on to make clear that it disagreed with the applicable body of law governing the standard of review and which mandated the outcome under those facts. The court expressed its displeasure with the First Circuit’s treatment of what are known as structural conflicts of interest, which is a fancy way of saying the circumstance in which the claim administrator deciding the claim for benefits is also the insurer of the benefits who has the obligation to pay the benefits. The court’s exact words? That:
[N]umerous courts, including this one, have questioned the propriety, and even fairness, of the "arbitrary and capricious" standard of review in cases where the same entity that makes eligibility determinations also funds benefit payments. Two judges on a split panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals recently suggested that the full court, sitting en banc, ought to revisit the standard of review applicable to ERISA cases in which the plan administrator determines benefits eligibility and also funds benefit payments. Denmark v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, 481 F.3d 16, 31 (1st Cir. 2007) (Judge Lipez wrote: "I think it is time to reexamine the standard of review issue in an en banc proceeding. Although Judge Howard dissents from the judgment agreed to by Judge Selya and myself, he agrees with me, as indicated in his dissent, that we should reexamine the standard of review issue."). A petition for en banc review is apparently pending in Denmark. But, unless and until the court of appeals (or the Supreme Court) changes the governing standard of review, this court is obliged to apply the law as it currently exists.
Now, I don’t necessarily join in the belief that the First Circuit’s current law on the effect of such structural conflicts of interest is the wrong approach or needs to be modified, in the absence of Supreme Court changes to the law governing the standard of review in circumstances in which the administrator has been granted discretionary authority. You can find my thinking on that point here and here. As the District Court explained the law:
Under the current law of this circuit, merely pointing out that a plan administrator is also the entity that pays any benefits found due under the plan is insufficient to warrant departure from the applicable arbitrary and capricious standard of review. See, e.g., Wright v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. Group Benefits Plan, 402 F.3d 67, 75 (1st Cir. 2005) ("[T]he fact that the plan administrator will have to pay the plaintiff's claim out of its own assets does not change the arbitrary and capricious standard of review.") (citation and internal punctuation omitted); Doyle v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 144 F.3d 181, 184 (1st Cir. 1998) (same). To warrant subjecting a plan administrator's benefits eligibility determination to a stricter standard of review, a plaintiff must point to some evidence suggesting that its decision was actually influenced by improper factors.
I don’t see anything wrong with this standard, and the actual facts of cases decided recently in this circuit and its district courts concerning this issue support maintaining, rather than changing, this standard. When, as in the case that was before the District Court, a claimant cannot point to anything concrete from inside or outside of the administrative record to suggest that the administrator’s decision was actually distorted by its dual role, there is no reason that the dual role should change the standard of review or the outcome of the case. This point is well illustrated by this case here out of the First Circuit, in which I represented the prevailing defendants, and in which a panel of the First Circuit again suggested that the law concerning structural conflicts of interest should be altered. Yet in that case, the panel found that changing the law was irrelevant for purposes of the case pending before it and that the administrator’s decision would be upheld regardless of the standard of review that was applied, because the claim was properly handled and properly evaluated.
When, as in both of those cases, there is no actual evidence suggesting that the dual role altered the outcome, there is no justification for believing or acting as though it did. The truth, which you see when you spend enough time in the courtroom with these types of cases, is that, as these two and a host of other cases (both in which an alteration of the standard of review was warranted and those in which it was not) show, there will be some sort of distortion or disjunct between the evidence in the administrative record and the administrator’s handling of the claim if an untoward motive was actually involved; it may be disguised, but if you look closely you will find it. In contrast, when you cannot find some sort of gap in logic or reasoning or documentation between the administrator’s decision and the administrative record, there is a reason for this, which is that the determination was on the up and up. Thus, in the absence of evidence founded in the record to suggest an ulterior motive, namely the impact of the structural conflict of interest, there is no reason to assume the conflict affected the outcome and should be allowed to change the standard of review.
What’s more interesting is a second, almost throw away comment by the court, which I think goes more to the center of the complaints critics have about the standard of review, including in cases involving structural conflicts of interest. The court commented:
If this were a breach of contract case, in which [the claimant] sued her insurance company for disability benefits, the outcome might be different. There is, after all, substantial evidence in her medical records (including the opinions of two treating physicians) supportive of the view that [she] is disabled. But, because this case is governed by ERISA, what would otherwise be an insurance coverage or breach of contract case is, instead, one governed by principles of trust law. Liberty's adverse benefits eligibility determination is subject to a far more deferential standard of review.
I think this comment by the court goes directly to what critics of the standard of review are really complaining about, which is not really that the standards of review being applied are wrong, but that they are applied at all. I believe the real complaint of critics of the law on this subject is instead that long term disability claims should be treated and resolved in the same manner as any other type of breach of contract or insurance denial (non-ERISA division) case. This is a whole different kettle of fish than arguing over how the standard of review should be affected by a structural conflict of interest or other issue on the margin, and instead goes right to the heart of the ERISA regime. To some extent, these on-going disputes in the case law that are directed at altering the standard of review to make them more favorable to claimants, such as in cases where the administrator is also the insurer of the benefits, are really proxy wars being fought instead of the real dispute that critics of the system have with denial of benefit claims under ERISA, which is the very application of ERISA doctrines, rather than traditional breach of contract doctrines, to these types of cases.
The First Circuit's Road Map for Terminating Benefit Plans
Permalink | Just a fairly short post on a technical ERISA issue that the First Circuit ruled on a few days ago, namely the steps that have to be followed to terminate or amend a benefit plan, at least with regards to the documentation and formalities needed to do so. In Coffin v. Bowater, Inc., the First Circuit provides a clear and definitive road map to follow to effectuate such a termination, and the court makes clear that veering off of that road map will result in a finding that the benefit plan has not been terminated. While the legal rule itself presented in the case isn’t all that gripping, although it is certainly a technical point that is important to know, the context of the case and some of the discussion in it are interesting in and of themselves, for at least two reasons. The first is the fact pattern of the case itself, which involved the failure of a plan sponsor and an acquiring company to effectively terminate a benefit plan as part of a corporate acquisition, causing them to later have to try to convince a court - unsuccessfully - to create some sort of common law exception to the rules established by the courts and ERISA that would excuse their failure to follow the basic requirements for a plan termination. Its simply interesting to see this important issue poorly executed in a complex corporate transaction, and the end result of litigation and additional liability that results.
The second is that the panel ventures into the question of the standard of review - de novo or arbitrary and capricious - in this circuit with regard to benefit issues and interpretation of plan language. As certain judges of the First Circuit have done in a couple of earlier decisions, this panel suggests that the time may be right for the First Circuit to revisit this question en banc and reset the law in the First Circuit on this issue, although the panel makes clear that doing so is not necessary for purposes of Bowater because the result would be the same under any standard of review that could apply. One wonders how much more pot stirring of this nature on the issue of the standard of review there can be before the circuit chooses a case to fully review and possibly revise the law in this circuit on this issue.
High Cost Investments, Payments to Sponsors, and the National Education Association
Been away from the desk for a few days, but not away from my reading, and there’s been a whole series of things in the media that may be of interest to those who read this blog that I have meant to pass along and comment on. I am going to try to post frequent but shorter notes for the next day or three until I cover them all, starting with one that most clearly and directly falls within the jurisdiction of this blog, concerning the payment of fees to a quasi-retirement plan sponsor. Many of you may have already seen the story, from the New York Times, which concerns payments received by the National Education Association from financial firms whose investment products it recommended to members. As the article explains:
A lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Washington State contends that the National Education Association breached its duty to members by accepting millions of dollars in payments from two financial firms whose high-cost investments it recommended to members in an association-sponsored retirement plan. The case was filed on behalf of two N.E.A. members who had invested in annuities sold by Nationwide Life Insurance Company and the Security Benefit Group. It contends that by actively endorsing these products, which carry high fees, the N.E.A., through its N.E.A. Member Benefits subsidiary, took on the role of a retirement plan sponsor, which must put its members’ interests ahead of its own. By taking fees from the two companies whose annuities N.E.A. Member Benefits recommended to its members, the N.E.A. breached its duty to them, the suit contends.
The article goes on to explain some tricks and twists that the plaintiffs face in trying to press their suit against the N.E.A. related to the payments and the high cost products, namely that the plaintiffs need to shoehorn the case into ERISA by arguing that “because the N.E.A. actively promoted the annuity products to its members, it essentially stepped in as a plan sponsor [thereby making] it subject to Erisa’s fiduciary duty requirements.”
With regard to this problem, concerning the plaintiffs’ need to figure out the best manner to structure their lawsuit, what you are really seeing is the problem of forcing a square peg into a round hole. I have argued in other posts that, as we move decisively from a defined benefit plan world to a defined contribution world, and thereby make plan participants the bearers of all the risks of their retirement investments, we need to simultaneously provide those plan participants with the legal protections and tools to manage those risks, including the types of risks alleged in this case, of misleading investment recommendations, undisclosed payments, and excessive costs.
I hope to keep an eye on this case going forward, as it may provide an excellent window on the question of whether, and if so how, the law can evolve to deal with these changes in the real world environment in which people now must prepare for retirement.
The Latest Word Out of the First Circuit on Pre-existing Conditions, Long Term Disability Benefits, and Uncertainty Over the Standard of Review
Permalink | No one is quicker to post about decisions out of the First Circuit than Appellate Law & Practice, who quickly had this post up on Friday about the First Circuit's opinion issued that day in a long term disability benefits case where the plan and the administrator prevailed at the District Court, and then again before the First Circuit. I represented the prevailing parties before both the District Court and the First Circuit in that one.
Appellate Law & Practice focused in its post on some of the issues addressed by the First Circuit that apply across the board to other types of litigation, and not so much on the issues specific to ERISA that were addressed by the First Circuit in its opinion. There are some points about that opinion that are specific to ERISA cases, and should be of interest to those who practice in this area. Sometime in the next couple of days, I will return to the opinion and discuss those issues, from the perspective of the lawyer - me - who briefed and argued them. For now, here is the opinion itself.
Still More on Structural Conflicts of Interest
Permalink | Day 3 of my discussion of the First Circuit’s recent ruling concerning structural conflicts of interest and their impact on claims for benefits under ERISA: Workplace Prof blog has his take, and quotes from others, here, and one of my favorite, quirkier, law blogs, Appellate Law & Practice, has its take here.
A Survey of All the Circuits on the Effect on the Standard of Review of Structural Conflicts of Interest
Permalink | One of the things lawyers learn early in their careers is that the time it takes to research a particular issue can be reduced dramatically by finding a good published decision out of one of the better federal courts on the issue; such an opinion will often include an excellent synopsis, at a minimum, of the key case law on the issue. In essence, the opinion offers up the outstanding work product, already concluded on the issue in question, of high quality law clerks. Wednesday’s decision in the Denmark case in the First Circuit, which I discussed in yesterday’s post, is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as it provides, in a four paragraph section of the lead opinion, a summary of the law in each circuit on the effect on benefit cases of so-called structural conflicts of interest. As the opinion states:
The circuits have adopted varying approaches to the issue of whether the structural conflict that arises when an insurer both reviews and pays claims justifies less deferential review. In addition to this court, the Seventh and Second Circuits have held that a structural conflict alone is insufficient to alter the standard of review. Instead, these circuits require an actual showing that the conflict of interest affected the benefits decision before there will be any alteration in the standard of review. See Rud v. Liberty Life Assurance Co., 438 F.3d 772, 776-77 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding that a structural conflict of interest, without more, does not affect the standard of review); Sullivan v. LTV Aerospace & Def. Co., 82 F.3d 1251, 1255-56 (2d Cir. 1996) (holding that a claimant must show that a conflict of interest affected the benefits decision, but if such showing is made, de novo review applies).
However, seven other circuits have held that a structural conflict warrants alteration to the standard of review, although six of these circuits apply less deferential review within the arbitrary and capricious framework. Of these six circuits, all except one have adopted a "sliding scale" approach to the standard of review, in which the court applies less deferential review to the extent that a conflict of interest exists. See, e.g., Fought v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 379 F.3d 997, 1004 (10th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (explaining that "the court must decrease the level of deference given to the conflicted administrator's decision in proportion to the seriousness of the conflict" (internal citation and quotation omitted)); Pinto, 214 F.3d at 379 (expressly adopting a "sliding scale method, intensifying the degree of scrutiny to match the degree of the conflict"); Vega v. Nat'l Life Ins. Servs., Inc., 188 F.3d 287, 297 (5th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (explaining that "[t]he greater the evidence of conflict on the part of the administrator, the less deferential our abuse of discretion standard will be"); Woo v. Deluxe Corp., 144 F.3d 1157, 1161-62 & n.2 (8th Cir. 1998) (explicitly adopting the sliding scale approach while noting that "not every funding conflict of interest per se warrants heightened review"); Doe v. Group Hosp. & Med. Servs., 3 F.3d 80, 87 (4th Cir. 1993) (applying less deference "to the degree necessary to neutralize any untoward influence resulting from the conflict"). The Ninth Circuit employs a "substantially similar" approach, but with a "conscious rejection of the 'sliding scale' metaphor" on the ground that "[a] straightforward abuse of discretion analysis allows a court to tailor its review to all the circumstances before it." Abatie v. Alta Health & Life Ins. Co., 458 F.3d 955, 967-68 (9th Cir. 2006)(en banc).
The Eleventh Circuit uses a different framework. It first determines, under de novo review, whether the decision was wrong; if it was, and if an inherent conflict of interest exists, "the burden shifts to the claims administrator to prove that its interpretation of the plan is not tainted by self-interest." HCA Health Servs., Inc. v. Employers Health Ins. Co., 240 F.3d 982, 993-94 (11th Cir. 2001). The claims administrator may then meet this burden "by showing that its wrong but reasonable interpretation of the plan benefits the class of participants and beneficiaries." Id. at 994-95.
Finally, the D.C. Circuit has not yet established a standard of review in cases involving a structural conflict of interest. See Wagener v. SBC Pension Benefit Plan-Non Bargained Program, 366 U.S. App. D.C. 1, 407 F.3d 395, 402 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (finding that the result would be the same under either arbitrary and capricious or de novo review).
Current First Circuit Thinking on Structural Conflicts of Interest
Permalink | Interesting decision out of the First Circuit yesterday, in the case of Denmark v. Liberty Life Assurance Company, that focused on the proper standard of review to apply in cases in which the administrator both decides the claim for benefits and is also the party that will have to pay the benefits if the claim is upheld. I have addressed in other posts this Circuit’s approach to that issue, and my belief that, although some other circuits take a different approach, the approach taken by this Circuit is the correct one. I discussed that here, here and here. The Denmark appeal generated a separate opinion from each of the judges on the panel, with two judges believing that it is time for the Circuit to reconsider, en banc, its approach to this issue. The third judge emphasized his belief, much like mine, that the Circuit’s current approach is time proven and battle tested, and should not be overturned lightly; he also points out that, given the split among the circuits over this issue, it would make sense not to change course on this issue unless and until the Supreme Court resolves the split.
The Supreme Court, Abatie and Conflicts of Interest
Permalink | I have written extensively before - including both here and here -about Abatie v. Alta Health, the Ninth Circuit’s relatively recent decision revising that circuit’s approach to structural conflicts of interest and the effect such conflicts should have on the standard of review in denial of benefit cases. The Ninth Circuit’s new rule, I noted, placed it in conflict with the position of other circuits on the same issue, most notably, for purposes of this blog, the First Circuit, whose approach is really diametrically opposed to that of the Ninth Circuit on this issue.
The internet is abuzz today with the story of the Supreme Court remanding a denied benefits case back to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration in light of the intervening decision from that circuit in Abatie. SCOTUS blog, really the gold standard in Supreme Court coverage, has the story here, as well as links here to the petition for certiorari filed by the administrator/insurer and here to the Supreme Court order remanding the case for further consideration.
What is perhaps more interesting, to me anyway, is the unknown future of the remanded case in light of that remand. I have written before that Abatie itself reads as though it was written in the hope of becoming the vehicle for the Supreme Court to return to the issue of standards of review and the effect of conflicts of interest on the arbitrary and capricious standard of review. Can we look forward to seeing the newly remanded decision back up to the Supreme Court later, after further consideration by the Ninth Circuit of it in light of the principles enunciated in Abatie, as the vehicle for that inquiry?
On a side note, by the way, the petition for certiorari is itself a terrific review of the split among the circuits on the issues noted above.
The Unum Provident Problem
I have spent some time recently reading a draft version of Yale Professor John Langbein's article, Trust Law as Regulatory Law: The Unum/Provident Scandal and Judicial Review of Benefit Denials under ERISA. For those of you who have more socially redeeming hobbies (like mowing the lawn, watching paint dry, pretty much just about anything I suspect) than reading law review articles, the good professor essentially argues that the Unum Provident problem, referenced here, shows that the current regime under which ERISA benefit claims are litigated is one giant failure and that the Supreme Courts needs to alter the jurisprudence governing denied benefit claims. For those who would like more detail on what the article has to say in full, without having to spend the time reading the article in its entirety, the abstract of the article is here.
I have a few initial thoughts in response to the article, some of which perhaps I will flesh out in greater detail in future posts if time allows. Here they are, however, in a nut shell.
One, the good professor makes the case that Unum Provident's conduct in handling claims and the questionable conduct uncovered in investigations into its conduct show that the governing legal regime needs to be changed. Not really. To avoid the obvious fact that Unum Provident may simply be an outlier, which has already been caught by the system currently in place, Professor Langbein has to create a straw company, asserting that Unum Provident was caught, but only because it was clumsy and the regime should be fixed to protect against other companies acting the same way, only with more subtlety. I don't see any evidence that other companies are doing this, or that, if so, they are so good at what they are doing they won't be caught in the same way that Unum Provident was nabbed. Indeed, the professor points out that Unum Provident was partly caught by a long run of federal court decisions in which judges found Unum Provident's claims decisions to be highly questionable under the standards of review currently in force; a different insurer trying the same thing is going to run into the same problem. Hiding from shadows is what I would call it, changing an entire legal structure on the theory that somewhere, there might be someone doing something wrong, but we don't know about it.
Second, on a micro level, the truth is that unscrupulous claims handling of the kind described in the article is caught in litigation in the federal courts, and thus the improper rejection of a particular claimant's benefit claim can be and is resolved successfully under the current system and standards of review. In fact, if anything, we see courts providing an ever more skeptical review of administrators' decisions even under the arbitrary and capricious standard of review as it currently exists than we ever have, for the exact reason, I believe, of making sure no administrator is trying to hide improperly motivated decision making behind the cloak of judicial deference that is owed to an administrator who is acting with discretionary authority.
Third, on a macro level, litigation is an awfully blunt instrument for modifying long term corporate behavior, and I am skeptical that changing the standards of review that apply to denied benefit claims will have such an effect. It may well be that the combination of the current standards of review, which do contain effective protections of the rights of individual claimants, with a vigorous state level regulatory apparatus is the correct way to proceed. This combination did, after all, successfully handle the Unum Provident problem.
Fourth, I am not convinced that the Unum Provident problem really shows, as the article wants it to, a problem with courts relying on market place forces to provide some protection against biased and self-serving decision making by administrator/insurers. Courts assume that in the long run, such companies will be hurt by such conduct when competing for business in the marketplace, and that this will have a deterrent effect. Critics of this thinking like to point to Unum Provident and its size in the market to prove otherwise. But I am not sure it proves anything of the sort. As the professor points out, Unum Provident is the product of a series of mergers and acquisitions, and one has to ask whether a company that stands accused of the type of misconduct that Unum Provident is charged with could have grown so large organically. Unum Provident may well show that the problem/hole in the system is in the mergers and acquisition regime, not in the benefit review regime.
Finally, a quick note of thanks to Workplace Prof Blog and Benefits Blog, without whom I would never have noticed the professor's paper, since I generally don't spend time surfing faculty websites (their blogs, yes, but not their websites). You can find a link to the the actual paper, by the way, here.
The Long Term Impact of Conflicted Decision Making in ERISA Litigation
I have talked elsewhere, including here and here, about the extent to which market forces can be expected to protect against conflicted decision makers in ERISA benefits litigation, and my preference for the position of courts such as the First Circuit, who recognize the central role such forces should play in devising the appropriate legal regime that should govern this situation and these types of cases. Many, obviously, do not agree, and believe that the long term marketplace effect of bad conduct can't possibly have enough effect to deter bad actors, and it appears that the judges of the Ninth Circuit agree with this line of thinking. To those, I raise the question of whether being entirely thrown out of the market because of long term misconduct in handling employee benefit claims, as this article discusses, would be enough evidence that the market will punish the bad and reward the good, at least over time. It would, at a minimum, be ironic if the largest state in the Ninth Circuit proceeded in the manner discussed in the article and provided graphic evidence of a marketplace punishment for misconduct of this type, on the heels of the Ninth Circuit itself finding that something else is instead needed to deter such conduct.
Is More Supreme Court Review of ERISA Standards of Review in the Works?
With lawyers, how we view an opinion, and for that matter a blog post, frequently depends on the focus of our practices and the things that, as a result, we are looking for. I was reminded of this over the weekend when I came across this post on Appellate Law and Practice, a blog run by a self described group of federal law clerks and appellate lawyers who post about the recent decisions in the circuit courts of appeals that they cover. Being appellate practice oriented folk, a central aspect of their take on my recent posts about Janeiro and the contrary opinion, Abatie, out of the Ninth Circuit was to note that the two cases, and my posts on them, demonstrate a split in the circuits on the issues addressed in the two decisions.
Which was interesting because one of the things that jumped out at me right off the bat about the Ninth Circuit's decision in Abatie, a decision I discussed in detail here and here, but did not previously comment on, is that in reading it, one can almost see the court and its clerks targeting a spot on the Supreme Court's docket. From the detailed presentation of the interaction of the decision with current Supreme Court precedent, to the almost scholarly review of the various approaches of other circuits, it reads like an invitation to the Supreme Court to weigh in yet again on the standard of review and conflict of interest questions still open under current Supreme Court jurisprudence.
Abatie, Part II
I don't want to leave the impression that the Ninth Circuit's decision in Abatie is a wacky or fringe decision, or that I think that myself. Far from it. The new rule it announces for that circuit on the effect of structural conflicts is certainly well within the margins of current mainstream jurisprudence on the issue, probably more so than the somewhat Rube Goldberg like burden shifting contraption that the Abatie court described the circuit as previously applying to such conflict situations. It is fair to say, though, that with regard to the core of its ruling, I simply don't agree with the premise that the conflict of interest alone, without a showing that the conflict actually played a role in the decision making at issue, should affect the standard of review. It is not as though other circuits don't take such conflicts into account, as they do and they should. But I think the more appropriate rule is to have that conflict only matter if the claimant can show that it actually mattered; i.e., that it affected the decision made by the plan or its administrator. This is, in essence, what the First Circuit required in Janeiro, as discussed here. And requiring this simply should not be a significant issue, since proving a conflict of interest, based on documents or testimony, is - or at least should be - a standard arrow in the quiver of any competent trial lawyer; there is no quicker way to discredit testimony on cross examination than to show the speaker had agendas other than the truth in mind when he or she spoke. So at the end of the day, I don't think the broad, throw the baby out with the bath water condemnation of all insurers and of all administrators acting while burdened with a structural conflict that Abatie enacts is warranted; you can clearly protect against the undue influence of such conflicts in a more nuanced and fact specific manner than what the Ninth Circuit has chosen to do.
So to those I have heard from who are concerned that the reliance on the market argument that I presented here is too favorable to insurers/administrators and does not provide sufficient protection against having benefit determinations swayed by such conflicts, I can say only this in a short piece: I do think market discipline works against any tendency for such decisions to be swayed by conflicts of this nature, but when the market is not enough to prevent it, an aggrieved party is still protected against having a benefit determination affected by the conflict simply by proving that the conflict actually did affect the outcome of his or her particular claim. Market forces and an evidence based rule to protect claimants is a nice one - two punch, and certainly seems more preferable to me than simply assuming that all decisions made by an administrator who must pay any benefits that are awarded are always suspect.
And as to why I am not fond of that latter approach, I will hopefully return to that point in a subsequent post, for those of you who, like me (I hope I am not the only one), simply can't get enough of Abatie.
First vs Ninth, and Structural Conflicts of Interest in ERISA Litigation
A frequent correspondent, even though he normally runs from ERISA cases as though he 'd been handed a basket full of snakes, forwarded me the Ninth Circuit's decision from earlier this week in Abatie v Alta Health and Life Insurance. Fascinating opinion. I could write an article or even a book on the decision, given its themes, its discussion of the historical development of the law on certain issues, and the rules for benefit litigation in the Ninth Circuit it declares (but that is what this blog is for, to discuss these kinds of things in a more timely manner than could be done in these other forms of media). What this means is you will probably see multiple posts on it from time to time, on different facets that are worth shining a light on.
For now though, what I wanted to comment on is its central focus, namely the impact on the standard of review of what is known as a structural conflict on behalf of a plan administrator in cases where the plan grants discretion to the administrator (and as a result the court should be applying the arbitrary and capricious standard of review to any judicial review of the administrator's decisions). I discussed structural conflicts and their effects a couple of days ago in a post on how the First Circuit deals with such a conflict. To reiterate, as the Ninth Circuit phrased it In Abate, "an insurer that acts as both the plan administrator and the funding source operates under what may be termed a structural conflict of interest." The First Circuit recently reaffirmed that this type of conflict, without more - namely proof that the administrator actually had a real world, not just a hypothetical, conflict, and made a benefit determination that was truly influenced by it - does not alter the standard of review. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit believes it does affect it, and how it does so is the primary subject of the opinion in Abate.
The rationale for the belief of the First Circuit, and other circuits that follow the same line of thought, that such structural conflicts can be ignored is that market forces should be sufficient to dissuade administrators from declining to pay benefits simply because they are the source of the funds, the idea being that, over time, market forces will punish those who do and reward those who do not. These structural conflicts usually entail insurers who both insure the benefits at issue and administer the claims made for benefits under the plan. The idea is that there will be a flight to quality, if you will, by plans and the companies who run them to insurers/administrators who do not act to their own benefit and the detriment of the plan's participants as a result of such a conflict.
Now, I am not totally convinced by this line of thinking, and clearly the judges of the Ninth Circuit aren't either, but I am more inclined than not to agree with it. I have never been totally inclined because it has always felt too much like what happens when lawyers play at being economists; they find a nice sounding macroeconomic idea and apply it as though true, without it ever having really been rigorously tested. On the other hand, based on my own experience of seeing, both in my own practice and in the case law, hundreds of cases in which such a conflict existed, it seems to me that the anecdotal evidence is clear that this reliance on the market does in fact seem to work and account for any problems posed by this potential conflict. The better companies that insure and/or administer plans do not, in fact, act out this conflict, even without anything more elaborate in the case law to prevent them from doing so than the assumption that the market will take care of the problem. My own belief is that such an approach is just the natural outgrowth of the overall mentality -from hiring to training to accountability - of the better run companies, who seem to operate on the assumption that good business practices pay off, or as I am inclined to say, that good business is itself good business. Recent research suggests that this may just be the case, Enron and the like notwithstanding; research indicates that "ethical business practices generate better financial performance," at least in the insurance industry (on this point, see here and here and here as well).
Meanwhile, the lesser companies, who may - it is almost never, if ever, really proven on the evidence to my satisfaction that they are doing so - be acting based on such a conflict, usually get caught and defeated simply under the traditional arbitrary and capricious standard without any change being imposed on the standard of review based on the existence of a mere structural conflict. And why is this? Because the administrative record, on which the court is basing its decision if the scope of review is the arbitrary and capricious standard, won't sufficiently support the decision of such a conflicted administrator if the conflict is the real reason for the denial of benefits. If you think about it, it is both logical and points out the irrelevance of the structural conflict. If the administrative record actually supported the administrator's decision to deny the claim, than the conflict either didn't exist or was irrelevant: the record evidence justifies the denial, and it is irrelevant if the claim was also denied because the administrator was also acting due to the conflict it faced. On the other hand, if the record evidence doesn't support the denial (which will presumably be the case if the only reason for the denial is the administrator's conflict of interest), than the administrator's decision will be overturned by the court as having been an arbitrary and capricious decision since it lacked sufficient support in the record, regardless of whether or not the reason for the denial was the administrator's conflict of interest.
So maybe I am a bit of a hometown fan, but I'll go with the First Circuit on this one.
Proving a Conflict of Interest in the First Circuit
What happens when a long time business relationship falls apart, and the principal who had been serving as the administrator of the business' employee benefit plans starts making benefit determinations intended to avoid unnecessarily enriching the other principal? Well, one of the most interesting things that happens - besides expensive litigation and an eventual award that makes a significant impact on the plan's assets - is that the standard of review applied by the court changes, and the playing field becomes far better for the aggrieved party than it otherwise would. This according, at least, to a terrific decision issued last week by the First Circuit, Janeiro v. Urological Surgery Professional Association.
In Janeiro, the plans, which were apparently well - and professionally - designed, granted, as most such plans do, discretion to the administrator; such a grant normally requires a court hearing a dispute over benefit decisions by the administrator to apply a deferential level of review to such disputes, under which the administrator's decision must be upheld unless it was arbitrary and capricious. Normally, the plan participant or beneficiary tries to avoid the application of this standard by claiming that the administrator was acting with a conflict of interest, since it is correct that, as a general proposition only, a conflict of interest can preclude application of that deferential standard of review.
But the trick, however, is in the details. The First Circuit does not lightly acknowledge or recognize such conflicts, as I talked about in an earlier post, and the First Circuit emphasized this again in Janeiro, noting that so-called structural conflicts, which are situations where the administrator has a financial interest in whether or not to award the benefits, without more, do not justify an alteration in the standard of review. In Janeiro, however, the court went on to show what does constitute a conflict that justifies such a deviation in this circuit: evidence that the administrator was driven by animus towards the participant and actually misapplied the plan terms as a result. Of particular interest is the fact that the court made it a point to note that the evidence showed that the conflict on the part of the administrator played a "real role" in the administrator's decisions; it is notable that the court emphasized this point given that the First Circuit has reliably rejected claims of conflict on the part of the administrator where the claimant has not been able to show an actual linkage between the alleged conflict and the decisions made by the administrator.
Now Janeiro involved a small scale retirement plan, making it easier to show such a thing (and making it more likely as well that the parties involved knew each other well enough for personal animus to even come into play, since it is familiarity, after all, that supposedly breeds contempt). This is obviously much less likely to be the case with large employee benefit plans administered by independent third parties. As a result, while Janeiro can be understood as standing for the proposition that a conflict sufficient to alter the standard of review is shown by proving an actual linkage between the administrator's decision and the administrator's motivations, that window for proving a conflict is unlikely to be of much use in most cases.
One of the problems that insurers, and insurance law, have to confront is the distortion in behavior, economic and otherwise, that insurance can create. Insurance coverage law deals with this problem in a number of ways, such as by means of the known loss doctrine, which - although the specifics of its application vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction - essentially holds that a person cannot insure against an expected, existing or highly probable loss. As such, it prevents an insured company or individual from insuring against something the company or the person intends to do and knows is likely to cause harm. One can think of the known loss doctrine in this context as protecting against people undertaking harmful activities that they would not otherwise have done if they did not think they could insure themselves against the consequences.
We can also understand the various treatments given by the courts of different states to the question of whether a punitive damages award against an insured is insurable as being part of the same thought process. . . .
An Interesting New ERISA Decision
Judge Woodlock of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has issued a comprehensive 42 page summary judgment opinion concerning a challenge to the denial of benefits under an ERISA governed plan. The opinion, Kansky v. Aetna Life Insurance Company and Coca-Cola Enterprises, available on the court's website at http://pacer.mad.uscourts.gov/dc/cgi-bin/recentops.pl?filename=woodlock/pdf/kansky%20may%201%202006.pdf, surveys a number of issues, ranging from conflict of interests and their impact on the standard of review to penalties for failing to produce requested plan documents. At its heart, however, is the issue of when a preexisting condition restriction in a plan can be invoked to deny benefits.
Full disclosure and self-congratulatory note: I represented all of the prevailing parties in the case.