On the Human Element in Plan Governance, Officiating and other Human Endeavors
I have been thinking, more than is probably healthy, about all the hue and cry over refereeing errors in pro football, particularly on the questions of, first, whether there are more errors than there used to be (or whether instead it just seems that way) and, second, why I don’t really care, despite every other sports fan I know getting all up in arms about it. First off, lets set the stage, and narrow down what we are talking about here. The pro football world, from twitter to mainstream media, is all focused on officiating errors among pro football referees, and even more on the bizarre sight of endless, play stopping conferences among officials who are meeting to try to figure out the latest officiating faux pas (I have to say, judges decide complex evidentiary issues in the middle of a trial, on the fly, with much more of real meaning at stake, much quicker than it ever takes a bunch of football refs to figure out something that, once the game is over, really doesn’t have any lasting significance).
I don’t remember officiating being such an issue in the past, and I have been watching football since, well, never mind . . . Suffice it to say, I remember watching Mike Webster play center for the Steelers, long before he became the centerpiece of a professional interest, namely his central but extremely sad role in a fascinating piece of ERISA LTD litigation against the NFL over head trauma, which occurred long before head trauma in football became a national issue (you can find one of my posts on it here). Is officiating worse now? Is the game more complicated and the refs now can’t keep up without making endless errors and needing endless conferences? One would think so, from everything you read about it and all the truly absurd conferences among officials during games. But I don’t think that’s the case at all, and instead its more like what happens when the medical community begins to focus on, or develops a new test for, a particular illness – that illness doesn’t actually become more prevalent in the population as a whole, but instead is simply diagnosed more often. And I think that’s the story here – refs have become a focus of attention, and now everybody is paying endless attention to every mistake they make, whereas in the past most would have been ignored. (I mean, really, does anyone actually care that a game between the 3-7 Ravens and the 4-6 Jaguars ended on a blown call?)
When I played high school sports (as an ERISA geek, I feel obliged on occasion to remind people that I also have five high school letters in two sports), we were always told not to complain about the refs after a loss, that they had almost certainly fouled up calls against both teams, and that they were never the real reason for a loss. Today, with the obsession on trying to expand instant replay across sports to take the human element, along with its concomitant inevitable errors, out of officiating, we seem to have lost that belief, replacing it instead with an obsession over officiating, with the inevitable outcome that now, all we seem to talk about is the refs and all we seem to watch is refs meeting in the middle of the field to decide what the call should be. Perhaps we would all be better off if we just admit that sports are a human activity, that human error is therefore inevitable, and, since we are not talking about a moon launch here, that is just fine. Certainly, watching the games would be a lot more fun if the refs just ran over, made a call, didn’t worry about being overturned by the “eye in the sky” of instant replay, and then we all moved onto the next play, rather than stopping everything so we can all watch a bunch of zebras huddle up.
More importantly, though, I have been thinking about why this issue has been bothering me so much, like a little pebble stuck in my shoe, and last week, speaking at ACI’s Employee Benefits Plan conference in New York, the reason dawned on me: it’s the belief that, if we just impose enough technology – like instant replay – we can take human error out of human endeavor, which is nothing but a chimera. I was speaking at the conference on the subject of fiduciary liabilities that arise out of errors in plan governance (you can find my slides here), and I was discussing that the nature of fiduciary liability under ERISA in a lot of ways can be reduced, in plain English, to the question of whether an investment committee or other group running a plan had acted as a reasonable, intelligent, informed, experienced person would in running the plan. As I explained to the audience, which was made up of lawyers who counsel and run such plans, if the company officers involved in plan management think of their role this way, and apply this standard to themselves, they will significantly reduce the likelihood of being sued and, if sued, reduce significantly the likelihood of being found liable at the end of the case.
I also talked about the importance of accurate communications and never appearing to sandbag (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a participant, whether outside of a formal claim or as part of a claim process. I talked about the fact that errors in plan communications are becoming a cutting edge basis for imposing fiduciary liability to an extent previously unseen (see, e.g., Osberg, discussed here), and also that poor habits in this regard in plan governance can simply be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and provokes a participant to sue, in situations where the participant might otherwise have skipped going to court.
And at the end of the day, the central element of all of these (and many other) issues with regard to ERISA plans is that we are dealing with humans here, not robo-advisors or whatever else (like target date funds, for instance) that people want to think can take the messiness out of plan governance, pension investing, 401(k) decisions and the like. Instead, like officiating in sports, plan governance cannot help but have human error baked in, which is why, if you get to the heart of it, ERISA litigation doesn’t focus on the outcome of plan governance but instead on the process of how the outcome came about: was there too much human error, or was enough effort and thought put into the process that brought about the outcome? Fiduciary liability under ERISA resides right at the heart of that question, and in the answer to it in any given case.
Co-Fiduciary Liability and, In Other News, Thoughts on the Evidentiary Status of Medical Reviewers in LTD Claims
Two small notes today that I wanted to pass on. Each stuck in my mind as the possible foundation for a substantial blog post, but I have found that once items like this start to pile up in number, it can be quicker and more useful to get them out in a shorter post. Sports columnists, like the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, used to describe columns full of small notes that were picked up along the way with none sufficient to warrant a full column on their own, as “clearing out the attic of my mind.” If I really set out to do that, we would be here awhile, but I am limiting myself to two items today: we can call it more like “cleaning out the corner of a desk drawer of my mind,” rather than the whole attic.
One of them was this article in Planadvisor titled “Do Retirement Plan Advisers Have a Duty to ‘Rat?’” Really, how can you not read an article with that heading? Although the headline sounds like clickbait for anyone in my line of work, it is actually a substantive discussion of a real problem, namely, when, given the risks on one hand of co-fiduciary liability and, on the other hand, of losing a client, a service provider should speak out about questionable or even illegal acts by a plan sponsor. One of my favorite southerners turned New Hampshire Yankee (which is not quite the same thing as a Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but close enough), Adam Pozek, sums up the issue in this quote from the article:
Adam Pozek, a partner at DWC ERISA Consultants in Salem, New Hampshire, says, “It varies widely depending on what type of infraction there is. No one wants the reputation of turning a client in when something small happens, but in a situation where there is outright theft, most would agree the adviser has a duty to report it.”
Pozek also says it hinges to some degree on whether the adviser is acting in a fiduciary capacity. If not, in general, the adviser has less of a responsibility legally. However, depending on what titles they hold, they may have ethical or professional standards to consider. “It’s a judgment call for advisers who are not fiduciaries,” he states.
The other item I wanted to pass along is ERISA lawyer Rob Hoskins’ post on the ERISA Board the other day on this decision from the Southern District of New York noting that medical reviewers in LTD claims are not to be treated as experts for purposes of the federal rules of evidence and that their reports, on which LTD insurers and administrators rely in deciding LTD claims, are not subject to the Daubert standards that govern expert testimony. Its worth bearing that point in mind, simply because medical reviewers in litigated LTD claims sit in something of a unique position for purposes of the rules of evidence, in that they fall somewhere in between a treating physician, whose records are often broadly admissible, and an expert retained for litigation, whose testimony is governed by Daubert and the federal rules that govern expert testimony. Neither fish nor fowl, to a certain extent, are such reviewers and their reports for these purposes, but long standing practice has established the admissibility of such reports and the weight to be given them in the context of litigation over LTD claims.
Do You "Work For" Uber?
You know, the Uber decision out of the California Labor Commission is fascinating, even if it isn’t directly on point with the subject of this blog. It immediately brought me back to the first appeal brief I ever wrote, as a young associate, which concerned, at its heart, the question of whether the plaintiff was an employee or instead an independent contractor. In Massachusetts, at least at that time, there was significant authority laid out in published cases as to the test for determining whether someone was an independent contractor, but essentially no such statements in the published decisions defining what makes someone an employee. I wrote the brief from the perspective of whether the plaintiff in that case qualified as an independent contractor under the standards laid out in the case law, demonstrated that the plaintiff did not satisfy those standards and thus was not an independent contractor, and that the plaintiff was therefore, by definition, an employee. What stands out to me, though, and creates my lens for viewing the Uber decision, is that the partner I turned the brief into read it once and then immediately said to me that I had shown the plaintiff was not an independent contractor, but that he did not see why that made the plaintiff an employee. I can remember explaining to him that under Massachusetts law, and really anywhere in the country, someone has to be one or the other, either an employee or an independent contractor, and that the case law analyzed the issue in that way: if the relevant legal test does not demonstrate independent contractor status, than the person in question is by definition an employee.
It has never struck me that Uber drivers and similar “workers,” for lack of a better word, fit comfortably within those traditional understandings, that one is either an independent contractor, as we have traditionally understood the phrase, or an employee. They are clearly entitled to more protections and benefits than the society at large and employment law in general extend to independent contractors, as they don’t really fit the traditional understanding of that term, no matter the clever machinations of Silicon Valley lawyers, but it is not clear that they qualify as employees under any traditional sense of the word either. There may, perhaps, have to be evolutionary movement in the case law that will allow the legal structure to incorporate these types of sharing economy worker bees into the system somewhere in a middle ground, and there may have to likewise be a similar movement in statutory provisions that control access to and administration of 401(k) plans, disability benefits and the like for these purposes. But as this article points out – featuring Boston lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan (Bostonians always want to be the first ones to fire the first shot for liberty, in any context, see, e.g., the Battle for Bunker Hill, which was actually fought on Breed’s Hill, but why ruin a good story) – the first steps in this process will be class action and other litigation, and I just wonder whether that is too blunt an instrument for this process. Would we, and the workers of the sharing economy, be better served if state legislatures and Congress tackled the problem of their job classification and their rights under employment law in the type of thoughtful way that created ERISA forty years ago (if you think I am kidding with that last characterization, I am not; take a look at Professor Jim Wooten’s work on the Congressional development of ERISA, part of which you can find here)?
Breach of Fiduciary Duty, Preemption and Liberal Pleading Rules
I obtained dismissal of a breach of fiduciary duty claim, as well as state law claims, against my clients in an opinion filed on Friday. While long time readers know that I won’t comment substantively on rulings involving my clients, the opinion is worth a read on at least two substantive points involving breach of fiduciary duty claims. The first is the requirement of discretion on the part of a defendant for the defendant to become a fiduciary by means of administrative actions relating to an ERISA-governed plan; the second is the question of whether state law claims relating to an ERISA-governed plan are preempted when brought against a party that is not a fiduciary.
Separately, though, because this part of the opinion does not concern my clients, I can comment on a part of the opinion that will be very interesting to anyone who, like me, is a federal procedure geek. The Court engages in a sustained analysis of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) and the right to amend as a matter of course, and how it applies in a circumstance where the original complaint, which the plaintiff seeks to amend, was in fact never served. The Court found the right to amend to still exist, regardless of the failure to serve the original complaint. The Court found that the modern rules reject hyper-technicalities when it comes to pleading, and that the rules therefore cannot bar an amended complaint simply because the original complaint was not first served. Interestingly, though, the Court recognized what is in essence a good faith requirement for a plaintiff to be allowed to avoid a bar that might otherwise be created by a perfectly literal reading of the federal rules, noting that its conclusion might be different if it were shown that the plaintiff were taking advantage of the liberality of the pleading rules for purposes of gaming, undermining or otherwise seeking to thwart the inherent purposes of the rules. Fun stuff, I think anyway.
What Are the Costs and Risks to Administrators When District Courts Remand Benefit Denials Back to Them?
I have been writing a lot recently about big picture items, from Supreme Court cases over ERISA’s statute of limitations to the ability of plan sponsors to legally control litigation against them, and everything in between. It is worth remembering, however, that ERISA is a nuts and bolts statute that is litigated day in and day out, often by plan participants for whom the pension or lump sum or disability benefit at issue is the most important financial vehicle open to them. As a result, the details of litigating under the statute are of supreme importance to them.
One of the technical and less sexy areas of litigating these types of cases concerns the circumstances in which federal District Courts, in deciding benefit disputes, elect not to enter an order granting benefits to a participant because of flaws found in an administrator’s processing of a claim for benefits, but instead order the administrator to revisit the issue, in much the same way that an appeals court would remand a case back to a trial court for further proceedings. Issues arising from this type of a remand have become more and more important over the years, as the district courts have become more inclined to remand benefit denials back to administrators for further review as opposed to overturning a denial outright and awarding benefits. Partly, this has occurred because of years of defense lawyers arguing that this is the appropriate way of proceeding, with the courts eventually coming around. Defense lawyers pressed this point in benefit litigation for years before it really became the standard mode of operating for many trial judges, and the reason was simple. It gave the administrator two bites at the apple, in the sense of they would either win at the district court by having the denial upheld by the court or, worst case, would get to decide the issue again on remand. For administrators and plans, this beat the heck out of having a benefit decision up on summary judgment before a court with one of two possible outcomes, those being the court upholding the denial or instead the court granting the benefits to the participant. The remand argument, at a minimum, meant that a court considering a benefit denial on summary judgment would be invited to make any of three decisions, only one of which was truly and immediately detrimental to the administrator, which are: (1) uphold the denial of benefits; (2) overturn the denial and grant the benefits; or (3) remand the denial to the administrator to redo the whole thing.
My friend, colleague, and sometimes adversary, ERISA lawyer Jonathan Feigenbaum, recently won a pair of significant rulings from the First and Second circuits (he will have to try for the Third and Fourth in short order, so as to hit for the cycle) on two key issues arising out of remands of this nature to an administrator, one being the circumstances in which attorney’s fees can be awarded and the other being whether a plan or its insurer can appeal a district court order remanding the benefit dispute back to the administrator for further analysis. The two decisions, and the two issues, are interconnected in an interesting way. In one, the First Circuit’s ruling in Gross v. Sun Life, the Court held that such a remand order is sufficient success on the merits of the case to support an award of attorney’s fees. In the other, the Second Circuit’s opinion in Mead v. Reliastar Life Insurance Company, the Court held that such a remand order is not appealable, as it is not a final order.
Together, they form an interesting counter to the preference of administrators and their lawyers to seek a remand, rather than an outright reversal, when a district court finds problems with an administrator’s benefit determination. They stand for the proposition that administrators may be able to seek that relief, but if they get it, they will have to pay attorney’s fees to the participant and will not have an opportunity to test the remand order on appeal until the entire benefit dispute has been conclusively resolved once and for all at the district court level. Together, they represent an interesting doctrinal response to the preference of administrators to seek remand when problems are found with a benefit determination. Like all legal doctrines, it needs a catchy name – like the Younger doctrine is for abstention – if it is to get much traction in the legal literature. Let’s call it the “Feigenbaum doctrine.”
What Rochow Teaches Us About Amara Remedies, and What It Doesn't
You know, I have been wanting to sit down for weeks – at least – to write about Rochow v. Life Insurance Company of America, initially with regard to the extraordinary remedy initially imposed by the court and then later with regard to the Sixth Circuit’s decision to return to the issue by hearing the case en banc, but I just plain haven’t had the time to write in detail on something that raises so many issues. Beyond that, I am not convinced that the problems raised by Rochow, and the issues it requires observers to consider, are well-suited to the form of a blog post, as there is simply a lot of ground to cover to be able to talk intelligently about the case. This latter problem, though, was solved for me by Alston & Bird’s Elizabeth Wilson Vaughan, who somehow summed up the entire history of the case and the issues it places in play in one simultaneously concise yet in-depth treatment, which you can find here. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the case, and what the hoo-ha is about, in advance of the en banc return to the issues by the Sixth Circuit.
I have long been on record with the view that the Amara addition of equitable remedies fills in a glaring hole in ERISA, and particularly with regard to ERISA remedies, by, if not solving, at least significantly reducing the problem in ERISA litigation of “harms without a remedy.” We all know those cases, in which a plaintiff makes a compelling presentation of harm, but the remedial structure does not provide for a clear right of recovery; most typically, benefits aren’t due in light of the circumstances at play, and thus a denial of benefits by the administrator was correct and must be upheld, but other issues – most typically a problem in communications with the participant – led to financial losses. We all know, as well, that many judges reluctantly accept that this occurs in ERISA litigation, and rule accordingly, although often expressing unhappiness about doing so – if not in their opinions, then in comments from the bench during hearings. The Amara equitable remedies framework provided a structure for resolving the most meritorious of those claims, by allowing equitable remedies such as estoppel and surcharge to fill in that hole.
The original Rochow disgorgement ruling – widely perceived, including by me, as excessive – falls outside of this framework, by going far beyond simply the proper use of Amara remedies to fix that problem, and is flawed for this reason alone. I have little doubt that the Sixth Circuit will fix this in its next opinion in the case. But for now, it is important, I think, to remember that this is an outlier decision, one that should not be seen as demonstrating some type of inherent flaw in the Amara equitable remedies rubric which, properly used and confined by judicial development of case law to the purpose of solving the “harms without a remedy” problem, is instead a valid and appropriate judicial interpretation of ERISA’s grant of equitable relief. Rochow, in the end, is best thought of, in its rulings to date, as the McDonald’s coffee cup case of ERISA remedies: an example of the need for judicial control over remedies, but not an indictment of the idea of having them.
If an Appeal is Filed and Nobody Knows It, Is it an Appeal?
There are many variations on the old question that, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, did it really fall. I am sure, like me, you have heard many versions of that question that are not fit to be reprinted in a PG-13 rated blog.
But I couldn’t help thinking of that line when I read a recent decision from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. In Morgan v. Reliance Standard, an LTD insurer terminated benefits, and the participant responded in, literally, “dismay,” writing a letter to the company expressing that sentiment. The carrier treated it as an appeal of the original termination, although apparently with some trepidation as to whether an appeal was really being filed. The insurer processed it as an appeal, in standard – and from the looks of the decision, appropriate – form, assigning it to an appropriate medical expert for a record review, eventually resulting in a decision upholding the denial on appeal.
Of course, that begged the existential question of whether there was an appeal at all, or, in other words, whether there can be an appeal if the participant, who must file the appeal, doesn’t mean to file one and doesn’t think he filed one. While one might think that someone must actually file an appeal to have an appeal, you would be wrong. The Court found that the participant could not complain of the insurer’s crediting him with an appeal he didn’t file, unless he was prejudiced by it, because under the law in the First Circuit, procedural errors in handling a benefit claim do not give rise to a remedy unless the participant was prejudiced by the error. The Court found that the course of communications between the insurer and the participant caused the participant to have essentially the same protections in the processing of his claim as he would have had if he had, in fact, filed an appeal, and that the participant therefore suffered no prejudice from the fact that his claim was treated as though appealed. The Court then proceeded to decide the case on its merits.
I am not certain whether this case really teaches us anything new about ERISA litigation, since it is very fact specific and certainly concerns a situation that is unlikely to repeat itself very often. It does, though, appear to provide an answer to the question of whether a tree actually falls in the forest if no one is there to hear it: the answer is clearly yes, at least if a court in the First Circuit is deciding the answer.
Thanks, incidentally, is due to Rob Hoskins’ baby, the ERISA Board, for catching this odd little fact pattern, and giving me an excuse to discuss trees, forests, and what they have to do with ERISA.
Mike Webster to Dwight Harrison: What they Tell Us About the NFL's Disability Benefits Plan
Wow – what more is there to say about this story by Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated on the long and bitter fight by aging, 10 year NFL vet Dwight Harrison to obtain disability and pension benefits? The story itself is a beautiful piece of writing, humane and complex all at the same time.
There are a few particularly interesting aspects of the story that are worth commenting on. First, to those who wonder if the story is accurate and the picture painted believable, I can only say that none of us, without going back over the court record and filings, can really know. What I do know, however, is that the story reads like an exact replica of the Mike Webster story, which I wrote about here, which concerned that NFL star’s long battle to collect disability benefits from the NFL’s ERISA-governed disability plan, over a time period that matches up with the time period during with Harrison’s harrowing story unfolds. The similarities are eerie, and lend credence to Harrison and Rosenberg’s (no relation) version of events. One of the things that any good trial lawyer does in investigating and building a case is to look for similarities and contradictions among different parties’ versions of events, on the thesis that the consistencies are more likely true than not, given that more than one person reported them. The striking similarities between Webster’s story and Harrison’s story suggests that the story reported by Rosenberg is highly credible.
Second, and perhaps this also goes to the credibility question with regard to this story (since none of us are likely to ever go out and read the court record itself or to have access to all of the relevant medical records), everything that Rosenberg describes fits comfortably with the manner in which an ERISA disability and pension case would be litigated and processed. It rings, in essence, true to someone, like me, who has litigated those types of cases.
Third, and this harkens back to Webster’s case in which, after a long court battle, he eventually prevailed, overcoming many of the same obstacles faced by Harrison, is the interesting question of why Webster eventually did much better than Harrison has, so far, managed to do. The answer to that, quite simply, is lawyering. Webster, somehow, had access to excellent lawyering and was represented by what was clearly an outstanding lawyer. Harrison, it is clear from the article, for many years had no such access. The quality of legal representation, including the extent to which a plan participant’s lawyer has previous and substantial experience with litigating ERISA cases, makes a huge difference to the outcome of these types of cases: they simply cannot be properly litigated – particularly against a well-lawyered adversary like the NFL – by anyone who doesn’t have substantial experience and expertise in this area of the law.
Fourth, and this is particularly interesting to me, I have had the good fortune over the past few years to speak with more than one retired NFL player who had read my prior writings on the Webster case and wanted to speak with me about their own efforts to obtain long term disability benefits from the NFL. What is very interesting to me about the Rosenberg article is his description of the manner in which the NFL plan operated during the time period in question, including its tiers of benefits, all of which matches up with what I learned in discussions over the years with retired players. It is hard to make the complexities of disability plans and claim structures clear to anyone but experts, but Rosenberg does a good job here. If you want to understand the structure and operation of the NFL disability plan, his article is a good place to start.
Thoughts on Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance
The more I read yesterday's Supreme Court’s decision in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance, the more I return to the same position I expressed when the case was argued: that what the rule that is imposed by the Court turns out to be is much less important than that we actually have a clear rule. The Court established the rule here, and now all parties in the ERISA landscape can adjust to it and play by it. What it means is simply this: the minute a lawyer who represents participants has a new client walk in the door, that lawyer better scrutinize the plan documents and figure out when suit must be filed by. On a substantive, day in day out level, that is what the decision means.
Despite the fact that, on a day to day basis, the decision is not earthshaking in any manner, there are aspects of it that are of interest. You can start with the identity of the opinion’s author, which is Justice Thomas. The opinion falls in line, in the fundamental backbone of its reasoning, with prior opinions – concurring, dissenting or otherwise – by Justice Thomas on ERISA cases: that is to say that the logistical framework is the plan says X, the statute does not expressly require otherwise, and thus X applies. Sure, there is much more to the opinion, but all of the rest is, in many ways, just gloss added on top of that framework, in much the same way that ornaments are added to a Christmas tree, but it is still, underneath it all, a tree.
The other aspect that jumped out at me involves one piece of that gloss, which is the Justice’s suggestion that “[f]orty years of ERISA administration suggest” that claim administration is handled reasonably and generally promptly, and that under those circumstances, it should not be disruptive to enforce a reasonable contractual limitations period. While I can’t account for the whole forty years referenced by the Court, I can account for twenty or so of it in my own practice, and I would have to concur with Justice Thomas in this regard. Although there are certainly outliers that are to the contrary, my experience is that most claims are handled reasonably to very well by most plan sponsors and administrators, and that the exceptions to that rule are just that – exceptions. With that experience to draw on it, I doubt that reasonable contractual limitations periods will pose any type of a significant barrier to the efficient, effective and equitable resolution of claims.
Of course, whenever the Supreme Court weighs in on ERISA, it creates unforeseen ripples: one can think of a Supreme Court opinion on any issue under ERISA as the equivalent of throwing a pebble in a still pond, which creates waves in all directions. Going back at least as far as LaRue – which, by creation of the diamond hypothetical approach to loss, in turn gave rise to the no-diamond approach that some courts have used to find the absence of loss – Supreme Court decisions concerning ERISA have created a multitude of issues for lower courts to sort out and, more often than not, for plan lawyers to deal with in the day to day running and writing of plans. One would think that a simple ruling on a statute of limitations issue would not have that same effect, but I suspect one would be wrong, as the Workplace Prof notes in this excellent post on the decision, in which he comments on the potential future ramifications of the decision beyond simply its application to statutes of limitations.
Thoughts on Oral Argument in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co.
Well, the oral argument in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. is fascinating, in that the Court’s questioning and counsels’ argument all focus on practicalities, in the sense of when should the time period run and how, and when, will any particular rule actually impact, in a negative way, either the plan administrator or the participant. Much of the discussion circles around the fact that, no matter how few times it happens, we really cannot have a system that could bar the courthouse door to a participant who is waiting for an administrator to conclude the internal appeal process before suing, by having the statute of limitations expire while waiting. At the same time, as the Justices’ questioning makes clear, there are a number of ways to go after that problem, running from Department of Labor regulatory efforts that would preclude that outcome by means of its detailed claims processing regulations, to courts applying tolling and estoppel doctrines to prevent such an egregious outcome.
I don’t know, but it seems to me it is easier just to have a bright line rule which would effectively preclude that outlier event once and for all, and the Court has the opportunity to put that into place right now. Of course, past experience with Supreme Court opinions on ERISA demonstrate the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished,” or perhaps instead the adage that “the road to perdition is paved with good intentions,” in that every Supreme Court decision on one particular issue under ERISA seems to open up a Pandora’s box of other issues under ERISA, that then get litigated throughout the lower courts for many years thereafter (this last sentence, by the way, may set a personal record for mixing metaphors and assimilating similes in a single sentence of a blog post). Of course, that is also one of the things that makes this the most interesting of practice areas.
Me, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and Gross v. Sun Life
Eric Berkman’s article in this week’s Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on Gross v. Sun Life, in which I am quoted, does an excellent job of explaining the case, particularly to those readers who do not have years of experience with ERISA cases, benefit litigation, or the long history of the law in this circuit governing benefit cases. I have written before of my thoughts on the Court’s opinion in Gross, but I realized, in reading Eric’s article, that his questions when he interviewed me for his article were astute enough to draw out some additional thoughts on the case, which I had not yet thought of when I posted about the case on my blog.
Eric presents those additional ideas of mine very well in his article and, citing my own personal interpretation of the fair use doctrine, I thought I would pass them along here:
Stephen Rosenberg, a Boston ERISA lawyer who typically represents insurers and employers, described the case as a “natural culmination of years of judicial approach” in this circuit.
“Whether or not it’s shown up in decisions, there’s been a certain level of skepticism on how best to apply standards of review to medical evidence in these circumstances,” said Rosenberg, who practices with the McCormack Firm and was not involved in the case. “It was only a matter of time before they deviated from Brigham and established a higher bar for obtaining discretionary review. The court makes clear — as do other circuits — that they really want to see a clear statement that ‘we retain discretion’ to decide the issues.”
He also said the ruling extends beyond long-term disability insurance plans. In many contexts, the employer itself, rather than an insurer, provides an ERISA plan and wants to maintain discretion to determine benefits eligibility, Rosenberg explained.
“These plans are often written by an in-house benefits person or an in-house attorney who has no ERISA expertise,” Rosenberg said. “Years later, when a dispute arises, the company will always want to claim discretionary review, and I think they’ll have to learn from this decision that they need to use the proper language in these types of plans as well.”
A State of the Art ERISA Benefits Decision from the First Circuit: Gross v Sun Life
Great, great decision out of the First Circuit a few days ago on ERISA benefits litigation, covering, in no particular order: what language is necessary to establish discretionary review; when does the safe harbor exception to preemption apply; when is an LTD policy part of an ERISA governed plan; the proper weight and mode of analysis to be given to video surveillance in the context of an LTD claim; and when to remand to a plan administrator for further determination as opposed to the court ordering an award of, or denial of, benefits.
I can’t say enough about the Court’s analysis of each one of these issues, particularly if, like me, you have been carefully reading all of the ERISA decisions out of the First Circuit and the district courts in this circuit over the past decade or more. On each one of the issues I noted above, the opinion builds quite carefully, and persuasively, on the evolution on each of these issues that has taken place in this circuit, quite slowly, over many years. I will give you two examples. First, the Court raises the bar for establishing discretionary review, and in so doing, gives a careful presentation of exactly why this is the normal and logical result of years of jurisprudence. Here’s a second example. It wasn’t that long ago that we all expected the district court to either affirm a denial of benefits by an administrator or to instead overturn that denial and order an award of benefits. At one point in time, though, the case law shifted towards an analysis of whether, if a denial would not be upheld by the district court, the entire issue should be remanded to the plan administrator for further evaluation of evidentiary concerns identified by the court, so that the plan administrator could determine whether an award of benefits was warranted given those concerns; further litigation could thereafter ensue if the administrator maintained a denial and the plan participant wanted to challenge that determination in court. In this latest decision out of the First Circuit, however, you see something very interesting: the pure application of the need for remand to the administrator, as though this is simply the basic rule in this circuit (which, in fact, is what it has become).
The decision is Gross v. Sun Life. To echo a comment I made on Twitter about it, I don’t think you can litigate ERISA cases in this circuit unless and until you have both read it and thoroughly incorporated its lessons. And a side note: one of the plaintiff’s lawyers was Jonathan Feigenbaum, who, as I discussed here, takes exception to the very idea that discretionary review is even constitutional.
Why Discretionary Review Is Not Unconstitutional
Attorneys Jonathan Feigenbaum and Scott Riemer, who represent claimants in long term disability cases, have published a fascinating article, titled “Did the Supreme Court Flunk Constitutional Law when it Permitted Discretionary Review of Insured ERISA Benefits Cases?” In it, they argue, not surprisingly given the title, that it is unconstitutional for courts to apply discretionary review. In short form, their argument is that it deprives claimants of their constitutional right to have their cases adjudicated by an Article III court, by giving initial decision making, subject to a limited scope of review, to an outside, non-judicial party, without allowing for a full trial in court. This is a simplification of their well-developed thesis, which is more subtle and complicated than that, which is what makes it fun.
The response to their argument, though, rests in the proper response to a gauntlet the authors throw down at the outset of their paper, in which they challenge readers to:
identify any litigation in the federal courts between private litigants, other than discussed in this paper, where the Article III Judge must defer to the decision of the defendant without conducting a full trial on the merits. We bet you can’t.
This isn’t really what discretionary review does, however. Instead, it is simply a presumption running in favor of the private decision maker – who is best understood as a party to a contract who made a decision that is now being challenged in court by the other party to the contract – under which the other party must rebut the presumption by showing that the decision was not based on substantial enough evidence to support it. The American legal system is rife with these types of presumptions. What is the Moench presumption in stock drop litigation, if not a presumption running against the claimants that they can overcome with the right type of evidence? Employment law, with its burden shifting evidentiary rules, historically was rife with similar examples, in which one party bears a burden of proof only after another party makes a certain showing. The business judgment rule applies a gloss in favor of directors and officers in certain types of cases, which must be overcome by a plaintiff. Patents are presumed valid when challenged in court, and a holder of a registered copyright is presumed to have a valid copyright, unless and until proven otherwise in court.
One could go on like this for hours, making such a list. The point, though, is simple: discretionary review is not an unconstitutional removal from the court system of decision making authority over a claim, but rather the creation by the courts of an evidentiary presumption and a burden of proof, no different than what occurs in numerous other areas of the law.
Who Should Pay the Medical Bills of Retired NFL Players?
I don’t think there’s a better sportswriter working regularly right now than Sally Jenkins, whose sportswriter father, Dan Jenkins, is personally responsible for my decision, more than a quarter century ago, to attend law school: his sportswriting was so strong, so funny, that it made it obvious that I would have been out of my league if I had instead followed my interest in sports and gone into sports journalism. In this piece here, Jenkins – Sally, not Dan – thoroughly reviews the question of medical care for seriously injured football players, when the care is required decades after they stop playing professional football. What is most interesting to me is that the NFL is defending claims – using statute of limitations and other arguments – that threaten to force the costs of such medical care into the great empty space that lies in between disability coverage on the one hand, employer provided health insurance on the other hand, and workers compensation benefits on the third hand (I know that’s a weird, three-handed person, but if you think about it, the whole idea of a hugely profitable industry like the NFL leaving its employees to bear their own health care costs, when they stem from employment, is at least as bizarre and odd as that image). As Jenkins explains, the NFL denies the vast majority of disability benefit claims under its disability plan, and team owners and the NFL itself are aggressively disputing workers compensation claims filed by former players (i.e., former employees) alleging serious physical injuries from their playing days and accompanying massive medical bills. As Jenkins also explains, if there is no coverage for these medical bills through either of those systems, the only other place for those former employees to turn is Social Security disability or Medicare. And this isn’t just Jenkins talking, or the sales pitch of lawyers for the former players: “a 2008 congressional research report on NFL disability” backs up her reporting on this issue.
Whether people generally understand it or not, and whether the NFL and team lawyers and other representatives quoted in Jenkins’ article know it or not, most lawyers are aware of the general, historical basis for workers compensation schemes, and of the underlying tradeoff on which they are based: in exchange for abandoning the tort system as a means of remedying employment related injuries, employees are given an essentially assured, but limited, recovery for injuries caused by their employment. The NFL players discussed in Jenkins’ article thus either are entitled to workers compensation benefits (or should be, absent gamesmanship by the NFL of the type depicted in her article) for their injuries, or their injuries must be deemed to fall outside of the scope of the workers compensation system, with the former players allowed to seek recovery in the court system from the NFL and their former teams for the injuries from which they suffer. There really is no other appropriate understanding of the proper operation of the intersection of the judicial and workers compensation systems in this context, unless the NFL is going to step up to the plate (I know I am mixing my sports metaphors here) and accept responsibility for the medical care under its disability plan.
Despite Kirkendall, Never Assume You Don't Have to File an Administrative Appeal
This is interesting, right on the heels of all the discussion about the Second Circuit, in Kirkendall, not requiring a participant to exhaust administrative remedies by appealing a benefit determination before filing suit. As I noted in my discussion the other day about Kirkendall, the Court did not require an appeal because the plan did not clearly impose such an obligation. But what if the plan did, in clear language, provide a right and obligation to appeal? Well, the Eighth Circuit has just reminded us that, in that case, an appeal is necessary, and the failure to do so precludes filing suit. The case is Reindl v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co., discussed in this excellent post by the entertainingly named (and entertainingly written) Boom blog.
Is the Risk of Relapse a Disabling Condition for Purposes of an LTD Policy?
There are limits, though vast, to the degree to which words, even in the hands of the most careful draftsperson, can accurately capture concepts, particularly when those concepts concern future events and possibilities. There are likewise limits, though vast, to the degree to which people can anticipate future events. I have written more than once about the impact of these limits of both language and foresight on insurance policies. Because of these fundamental realities, no matter how much effort is put into drafting an insurance policy and anticipating the scope of potential exposures, there will inevitably be losses that either were never anticipated when the policy language was written or that, even if anticipated, were not accurately captured within the chosen wording. It is this phenomenon that constitutes the source of much insurance coverage litigation: either an event occurs that neither the policyholder nor the insurer anticipated and included within the policy language, or one party or the other thinks it bought coverage for or excluded a particular future possibility, only to find out later that the words they chose to use didn’t capture it.
This is true for plan documents, LTD policies, and essentially any contract – words and anticipation aren’t always enough to create a document that fully provides for everything that might happen in the future, leaving the parties to dispute how the document applies when a novel event eventually occurs. This has never been so evident as in this new decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the issue arose as to whether the future risk of a relapse by an anesthesiologist who had been diagnosed with addiction rendered the physician disabled for purposes of an LTD policy. The case itself is fascinating, as is, to some extent, the question at its heart: if the currently disabling event has passed, but the participant may become again disabled, is the participant still disabled for purposes of the policy? The question itself sounds like a Zen koan and, phrased as I just have, almost as unanswerable. Almost, but not quite, because the First Circuit found an answer, rooted in the limitations on language and foresight I noted above. The Court found that the risk of relapse rendered the participant still disabled, because the LTD policy did not specifically exclude this risk. So there you have it: if you don’t want to cover the currently rehabilitated participant whose risk of relapse means he can’t go back to work, you better write that down somewhere in the plan or the policy.
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.
Don't Look Back, Something Might Be Gaining On You: Whether a Plan Administrator Can Raise New Bases For Denying a Claim Beyond Those Raised in the Initial Denial of Benefits
What do these two stories have in common, the first about a claims administrator not being allowed to change the basis for a denial of benefits during the internal appeal and the second about an administrator not being allowed to deny benefits based on factual investigation during litigation? They both highlight the importance, for the parties on both sides of the “v” in any denial of benefits case, of the administrative claim process. Under the court decisions discussed in both stories, the record, and the grounds for denying benefits, were effectively frozen thereafter. In one of the two cases, in fact, the administrator was not even allowed to shift the grounds for denial during the processing of the appeal of its initial denial of claim, before the case even moved to litigation, and was forced to stand on the basis for denial contained in its original, initial denial.
From a practical perspective, there are lessons to be learned here about the need to stake out your position, and back it up, very early on in the claim process in an ERISA denial of benefits dispute. From a more philosophical perspective, the cases raise a serious question, about what the rule should be if, in fact, there is new evidence or analysis that would invoke a new plan term limiting coverage or otherwise affect the outcome of a claim, that is learned by the natural course of the claim’s progression. For instance, it may well be that an administrator denies a claim on one ground under the plan, but evidence submitted during an appeal of the initial denial taken by the participant demonstrates the applicability of another plan term as a basis for denial. Should the plan or the administrator be frozen out of raising that plan term as a ground for denial on the final decision, after the appeal of the initial decision, just because it wasn’t raised in the initial denial of benefits?
Contractual Statute of Limitations Periods in the First Circuit
Here’s a handy-dandy, one shot, easily referenced statement of the law in the First Circuit governing the statute of limitations applicable to LTD claims, and thus, by extension, all denial of benefit claims. It comes from the First Circuit’s decision last week in Santaliz-Rios v. Metropolitan Life Insurance:
Congress has not established a limitations period for ERISA claims brought pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Island View Residential Treatment Ctr. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mass., Inc., 548 F.3d 24, 27 (1st Cir.2008). Therefore, in adjudicating ERISA claims, federal courts borrow the most closely analogous statute of limitations in the forum state. Id. (citing Edes v. Verizon Commc'n, Inc., 417 F.3d 133, 138 (1st Cir.2005)). In Puerto Rico, the default limitations period applicable to contract claims is fifteen years. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31, § 5294; Caribbean Mushroom Co. v. Gov't Dev. Bank for P.R., 102 F.3d 1307, 1312 (1st Cir.1996) (“[C]ontract claims that are covered by the Commerce Code but are not designated for special prescriptive treatment automatically fall under the Civil Code's fifteen-year catch-all provision.”). This period has been applied to ERISA claims where no alternative limitations period was agreed upon by the parties. See Nazario Martinez v. Johnson & Johnson Baby Prods. ., Inc., 184 F.Supp.2d 157, 159–62 (D.P.R.2002).
However, where the contract at issue itself provides a shorter limitations period, that period will govern as long as it is reasonable. See Island View, 548 F.3d at 27 (applying a contractually agreed-upon limitations period to ERISA claim); Rios–Coriano v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 642 F.Supp.2d 80, 83 (D.P.R.2009) (“Choosing which state statute to borrow is unnecessary, however, where the parties have contractually agreed upon a limitations period, provided the limitations period is reasonable.”)
The plaintiff was barred by the contractual limitations period, as the court gave little weight to the plaintiff’s attempts to argue around the contractual limitations period, which were basically limited to tolling arguments made, apparently, without significant factual support. Attacks on statute of limitations bars need to be well-grounded in factual support to have any traction in this circuit, in my view, and that clearly didn’t occur in this instance. I can picture fact patterns involving contractual limitations periods, however, that could more readily sustain an assault on their application.
From Webster To Seau and the Impact of More Medical Research on Repetitive Head Trauma in Football
I spent some time thinking about whether to even post on this subject today, not wanting to feel on any level that I might be either rushing to judgment too quickly, or even worse, exploiting a tragedy in any way to make a point. But the suicide of retired football star Junior Seau perfectly captures a point that I have been thinking through for years, as the concussion/head trauma issues have played themselves out in the NFL and the media. Way back in 2006, I wrote about the ERISA case brought by former Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster, and the Fourth Circuit’s decision to overturn, as arbitrary and capricious, the decision of the plan administrator for the NFL’s retirement plan to award Webster “the lesser of two possible disability benefit awards available under the league’s retirement plan,” due to brain damage he apparently suffered as a player. At the time, the Fourth Circuit reviewed extensive evidence in the administrative record that soundly refuted the administrator’s determination, and concluded that the administrator’s determination was not supported by substantial evidence.
I have often thought about the Webster case and that blog post in the interim, because in many ways the actions of the administrator, at least in the snapshot provided by the Court, seem so questionable that it makes one wonder how the administrator could have reached the conclusion that it did. The evidence from the administrative record, although debatable in terms of how to interpret it, focused on by the Court ran strongly towards attributing the player’s mental incapacity to head injuries from playing and to have begun close to, if not during, his playing days, thus qualifying him for the benefits he sought. Yet, even under those circumstances, the plan administrator ruled against him.
Among the possible explanations for how this came to pass is one – incompetence by the plan administrator – that I have always ruled out. The second is a corporate decision by the plan and its administrator to hold the line against brain damage type claims, which is at least certainly possible, even if doing so on a broad level instead of simply testing the facts of each particular claim against the plan terms would be a clear cut violation of fiduciary obligations.
The third possible explanation that has rattled around in my head for the last few years, as more and more research has been done linking diminished mental capacity to the repetitive head trauma suffered by football players, has come to me to seem the most likely explanation. This is the idea that a decade and more ago, when the events at issue in the Webster case occurred, there was scant, if any, medical literature soundly tying post-playing mental impairment to playing-derived head trauma. That is not the case anymore, as Andy Staple’s piece here on Junior Seau’s suicide discusses, but it was then. Plan administrators are often faced, in many contexts, with disability claims in which there is little if any significant medical research that would allow a firm conclusion on causation with regard to the disability at issue. In those instances, it can be very difficult for a plan administrator to make a call on whether or not the plan terms governing disability benefits are satisfied. When one compares what we know now about the effect of repetitive head trauma in football – a knowledge level that is still limited – with the state of the research a decade and more ago, you can easily imagine the NFL plan’s administrator being trapped by the conundrum, and being unwilling to credit the evidence of impairment submitted by Webster because the medical literature lacked support for linking it to his playing days in the manner needed to award him the benefits sought by him. This, to me, is both the most benign and the most likely explanation for the long ago ruling against Webster, which it took an appeal all the way to the Fourth Circuit to set right. The state of medical knowledge though, as Staple’s current piece and many others in the past few years have made clear, no longer allows for that same possible mistake by a plan administrator.
When Does a Flaw in an Administrative Appeal Render an Administrator's Denial of Benefits Arbitrary and Capricious?
There have been a series of interesting ERISA decisions over the past several weeks out of the United States District Court for Massachusetts, whose Boston courthouse I can see through my office window as I type this post. The decisions have stacked up on my desk a little bit, like a leaning tower of paper. I am going to run a series of posts, some short and others perhaps longer, passing them on with my comments as to their value. The first is this summary judgment ruling in DiGiallonardo v. Saint-Gobain Retirement Income Group, which has to do with a challenge to a denial of disability retirement benefits. It is most interesting, and useful to other practitioners, for one specific point, namely its handling of an administrator’s procedurally poor processing of a claim and its appeal. The court found that the administrator had not considered the actual key term in the contract in ruling on the claim for benefits, and that this required remand to the administrator for a proper handling of the claim, because under those circumstances, the claimant had not received the “full and fair review of the administrator’s decision” to which a claimant is entitled under ERISA. The court found that this procedural irregularity rendered the administrator’s decision arbitrary and capricious.
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.
How Will Climate Change Affect LTD Carriers?
Who knows? The only link between the two subjects that I know of right now is that this blog post is going to touch on both issues.
There are a couple of stories I thought I would pass along today that may be worth reading. In the first, here, I am quoted on climate change litigation and the potential costs to the insurance industry. Personally, I am hard pressed, as a litigator who spends a lot of time dealing with issues related to the admissibility of expert testimony under the current federal court structure, to imagine plaintiffs who are pressing a climate change case ever being able to prove causation, or, for that matter, even being able to submit expert testimony to prove causation. Take one particular hypothetical case, a claim that in essence pollution increased the ocean level and is responsible for some particular piece of coastal property damage. How would you ever prove causation in a federal court between the pollution and the rise in the water level, given the strict standards for admitting expert testimony under current federal law? Or for that matter, even if you could prove that element, how would you ever prove one particular defendant’s factory - or even those of an entire particular industry - was the cause, as opposed to hundreds of millions of automobiles or a million factories in China, just to give two examples? I don’t see the current state of the scientific research being sufficient for a court to allow experts to testify to the elements of causation needed to recover on these types of claims. That said, though, I also don’t think much of the theories used to recover the GNP of a mid-size country from the tobacco industry, but all that took was a couple of courts to give credence to such theories, and you know how that ended up after that. All it would take is one judge somewhere to allow plaintiffs to go forward on these types of claims, and industry - and quickly their insurers - will end up, at a minimum, footing the bill for very large defense costs in response to such cases.
The second story, here, I pass along just because it is fascinating, to anyone who handles long term disability cases or likes statistics, or both. Who knew doctors claimed long term disability at a disproportionate rate?
Disability Insurers, False Claims and Social Security Benefits
Here’s a story worth reading, about a case worth paying attention to, namely the pending First Circuit appeal - argued yesterday - concerning whether a long term disability insurer - namely Unum - engages in false claims when it instructs beneficiaries to also apply for Social Security disability benefits. Simply put, group long term disability plans routinely require participants applying for LTD benefits to also seek social security benefits, if they qualify, and the plans are structured so that the LTD benefits are off set by the amount of social security benefits received. The structure both reduces plan costs - thereby satisfying the overall goal behind ERISA itself of encouraging plan adoption - and ensures that plan participants receive - when they are entitled to them - benefits under a social security system they have been paying into for years. There is nothing wrong with this system, although in its implementation there will be circumstances in which the implementation and enforcement of the offset can have a negative short term impact on a plan participant, due to the reduction in LTD benefits from what was paid prior to the award of social security benefits. But it is a workable coordination of the two benefit systems, one that has been in place for many years. Whatever the merits of this particular case, its certainly one that presents a need to avoid tossing the baby out with the bath water, and derailing this long standing benefit plan structure.
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.
LTD Litigation: What the Right Hand Takes, the Left Hand Gives Back
Judge Gertner of the federal district court in Massachusetts issued a pair of bookend decisions in long term disability cases a few days back that present an interesting contrast with regard to an issue that troubles many critics of the arbitrary and capricious standard, namely the extent to which an administrator deciding a claim for benefits can favor the opinions of its own reviewing physicians over the opinions of the participant/claimant’s treating physicians. In the first decision, in the case of Sorenson v. Metropolitan Life, the judge sets forth, and then finds in favor of the plan to a large extent based on, the general rule, which is, in the court’s words, that:
The law permits a plan administrator to rely on the opinions of a non-examining, reviewing doctor like Dr. Schroeder, see Tsoulas v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. 454 F.3d 69, 81-82 (1st Cir. 2006), and does not require that the opinions of treating physicians be given special weight, see Leahy v. Raytheon Co., 315 F.3d 11, 20 (1st Cir. 2002). To the extent that the reviewing and treating physicians offer conflicting opinions, the plan administrator has the discretionary right to choose between them, so long as its decision is reasonable.
However, in another decision issued the same day - Taylor v. Metropolitan Life - the court imposes, and bases its decision in favor (this time) of the participant/claimant on, certain limitations on that principle, finding that:
While MetLife is not required to give deference to treating physicians, see e.g., Vlass v. Raytheon Employees Disability Trust, 244 F.3d 27, 30-32 (1st Cir. 2001), Doyle, 144 F.3d at 186-87, it is unreasonable to selectively reference that physician's notes and fail to address the sections of her submissions most relevant to the claimant's ability to work. A plan administrator "may not arbitrarily refuse to credit a claimant's reliable evidence, including the opinions of a treating physician."
ERISA litigation, even LTD cases governed by the arbitrary and capricious standard, is not close to the locked in, pro-administrator structure that many critics of ERISA claim it to be. Rather, as the interplay of these two cases show, there is unquestionably a yin and yang to the case law and to the controlling standards, that tries to find the right balance between the authority of the administrator and the rights of the participant.
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.
Talkin' ERISA Litigation Trends
I will be presenting a seminar next week, on Wednesday January 14th, to the ASPPA Benefits Council of New England, entitled “ERISA Litigation: An Update from the Front Lines.” After three full days of outlining my talk, I now actually have a pretty good idea of what I am going to say; the talk will blend the latest developments nationally and at the Supreme Court in ERISA law with ERISA litigation trends and realities in the First Circuit. If you are interested in attending, its not too late to register. The brochure and registration form for the talk is here.
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.
Randy Maniloff's Top Ten Insurance Coverage Decisions for Dummies and the Rest of Us
Some bloggers blog their way to greatness, other bloggers have greatness thrust upon them. For some reason, that line popped into my head when Randy Maniloff’s always entertaining article on the top ten insurance coverage decisions of the past year appeared, like manna from heaven, in my in-box yesterday, providing one weary blogger - i.e., me - with a gift wrapped post for this morning. Substantively, there is much to be gleaned from the article and the cases it reviews, on issues ranging from the current state of trigger of coverage problems to an excellent decision on handling duty to defend disputes concerning obviously intentional conduct that has been pled as negligence for purposes of triggering insurance coverage, all written with the author’s trademark good humor and style (something anyone who reads a lot of insurance coverage briefs, opinions, articles and - yes - blogs can attest is not always present in written work in this area of the law). Moreover, the author has tossed in a free extra, a truly comical special section titled “Coverage for Dummies: The Top Ten," which collects ten excellent examples of people doing really dumb things and then demanding that their insurers protect them against the outcome.
And best of all, in what can only have been a transparent attempt by the author to garner a review on this blog, one of his top ten decisions (non-dummy division) is an ERISA case, the Supreme Court’s decision in MetLife v. Glenn. More seriously, its inclusion is almost mandatory in any collection of the most important decisions affecting the insurance industry (which, obviously, underwrites and administers the vast majority of employer provided disability plans), as it is guaranteed to generate more subsequent court rulings than any other insurance related decision of the past year, as the courts of each circuit move, over time, to realign their jurisprudence to accord with Glenn.
A Brief List of Things Worth Reading
Permalink | Even when trying cases, I have never had a week so busy since launching the blog that I haven’t been able to find time to post. David Rossmiller likes to say that work is the curse of the blogging class, but even when really busy, I have always found writing up a blog post to be a nice chance to recharge my batteries. So for those of you looking for something ERISA related to read on this upcoming summer weekend, I thought I would at least pass along some of the more interesting things I have been reading this week. These include: Kevin LaCroix’s latest post summing up the status of all of the subprime related lawsuits filed around the country’s courthouses, including two new cases brought under ERISA alleging breach of fiduciary duty as a result of subprime related exposures; the Workplace Prof’s series of posts on, in order, the Supreme Court’s request for the government’s view on a cash balance plan issue, the Ninth Circuit’s view that a disability benefit plan claim can be denied if the claimant does not cooperate with investigation of the claim to the extent required by the plan’s terms, and on recent appellate authority on the effectiveness - or ineffectiveness - of particular approaches to delegating discretionary authority to administrators; and the Florida Appellate Blog’s post on an Eleventh Circuit decision finding that an administrator did not have to provide a copy of an IME report to a claimant prior to conclusion of the internal appeal procedure.
And in Super Bowl News . . .
Permalink | Well, it’s finally Super Bowl weekend, so how do we tie that into the issues covered by this blog? Easy. Here’s a terrific article in this week’s Sports Illustrated (hey, we can’t get all our reading from Aspen Publishers) on the problem of disability and health benefits - and the fact that there effectively aren’t any - for long retired NFL players. The article isn’t about the legal issues, obviously, although it does touch on the distinction between the current retirement and disability plan, which is generous in this regard, that the union has negotiated for modern era players, and the plight of the players I, and probably many of you too, grew up watching in the seventies and earlier, who were never covered under any even marginally generous union negotiated benefit plan. Of the hundreds of posts I have written on this blog, probably none has had longer legs than this one, on the long legal struggle of former Steelers’ center Mike Webster to obtain benefits from the NFL under the applicable plan. The Sports Illustrated piece is a fine story of the people behind these issues, and presents a sympathetic portrait of them all.
And this, I note, is the first time I have ever linked to Sports Illustrated on this blog, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out to be the last time, too.
And in NFL News . . .
Permalink | Here’s an interesting little case out of the Fourth Circuit this week concerning what, at this point, must be the world’s most famous long term disability plan, namely the NFL’s Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan. This plan has been the subject of much media commentary over the past few years, as former players have come forward to complain about the benefits available under the plan to long retired players and as stories, like this one here concerning former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, have come to light involving questionable decision making in denying the claims of long retired players. I recently reviewed the disability benefits terms of the plan for other purposes, and it is frankly a pretty interesting document, with a lot of room for ambiguity in its application. This stems from the fact that the plan provides different types or levels of benefits depending on when a former NFL player became disabled, including how long after ceasing playing in the league the incapacity set in. The plan recognizes that the nature of professional football can result in long term injuries that may not manifest themselves in disability until years, in some instances many, have passed from the time the player retired from the league, and different benefits can kick in depending on when in that time period the player’s disability, originally stemming from injuries incurred while a player, finally arose and disabled him. Deciding when in that long stretch of time the retired player’s long ago on-field injuries finally manifested themselves in an inability to work, i.e., in permanent and total disability, is a difficult undertaking, rife with room for disagreement. And that’s exactly what this new case out of the Fourth Circuit, involving former Bears linebacker Wilber Marshall, is concerned with, the sheer difficulty of making the determination. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the medical evidence did not support the dating of that event given by the board that administers the plan, and pushed the date further back, resulting in an award of additional benefits to the retired player.
The Meaning of Arbitrary and Capricious Review
Permalink | A colleague - who, to protect the innocent, shall remain nameless (sort of a blog witness protection program) - passed along this remarkable decision out of the Fourth Circuit this month, Evans v. Eaton Corporation Long Term Disability Plan. The decision is an elegant and sustained defense of the granting of discretion to administrators and the application of the arbitrary and capricious standard of review under ERISA. The opinion reads almost as though the court set out to answer, and perhaps even to throw down a gauntlet to, critics who complain that the Supreme Court should not have established discretionary authority and the corresponding level of review, explaining, among other points, that such review is instead entirely consistent with the purposes and operation of ERISA, as well as with congressional intent. It’s a fine decision, whether you agree or disagree with the court’s analysis and conclusions. I would go beyond that, and suggest that critics of arbitrary and capricious review need to confront and provide a persuasive response to the court’s analysis of these issues, if they are going to criticize, with any credibility, the arbitrary and capricious review standards applied by the courts.
When Can You Sue an Employer for Denial of ERISA Governed Benefits?
Permalink | Interesting case out of the United States District Court for the District of Maine the other day, concerning a challenge by a plan participant to how his long term disability payments were calculated. The court essentially found that, since deferential review applied, the administrator’s calculation method could not be challenged, since it was a reasonable approach given the plan’s terms and the evidence. Of more interest, however, was the court’s nice thumbnail approach to the question of when an employer, who has delegated plan operation and decision making to an outside administrator - in the case at bar, the insurer of the long term disability benefits - can be properly named as a defendant in a claim for benefits. The court’s answer is generally never, unless the employer inserted itself into the actual administration and decision making over the claim. The court’s handy-dandy summary, suitable for inclusion in a parenthetical in the brief of your choice, is:
[T]he proper defendant for a denial of benefits claim is "the party that controls administration of the plan." Terry v. Bayer Corp., 145 F.3d 28, 36 (1st Cir. 1998) (quoting Garren v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 114 F.3d 186, 187 (11th Cir. 1997)). Typically, an employer is not the proper defendant when the plan documents name another entity as the plan administrator or claims fiduciary. Kennard v. Unum Life Ins. Co., 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4467, 2002 WL 412067, *2 (D. Me. March 14, 2002). Here, the Plan names Guardian Life as the "Claims Fiduciary with discretionary authority to determine eligibility for [long-term disability] benefits and to construe the terms of the plan with respect to claims." The Plan expressly states that Guardian Life decides whether a claimant is eligible for disability insurance, whether a claimant meets the requirements for payment of benefits, and what long-term benefits will be paid by the Plan. Guardian Life also disburses the long-term benefits. The courts have developed an exception to the rule that the plan administrator is the proper defendant in instances in which the plaintiff presents evidence that the employer, although not formally identified as the plan administrator, "controlled or influenced the administration of the plan." Beegan v. Associated Press, 43 F. Supp.2d 70, 73-74 (D. Me. 1999) (listing cases); Law v. Ernst & Young, 956 F.2d 364, 372-73 (1st Cir. 1992) ("[U]nless an employer is shown to control administration of a plan, it is not a proper party defendant in an action concerning benefits.") (quoting Daniel v. Eaton Corp., 839 F.2d 263, 266 (6th Cir. 1988)).
The case is LeBlanc v. Sullivan Tire Company.
How an Administrator Can Lose The Right To An Offset
Permalink | This is actually a kind of fascinating, if someone odd, long term disability benefits case out of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. It involves what otherwise would seem to be a remarkably unnoteworthy issue, namely the right of the plan administrator - an insurer who also administered the plan - to offset from the benefit amount the estimated value of social security benefits that the claimant would have received but for the fact that the claimant never applied for them. Seems pretty straightforward, except the court did not allow the insurer to do so, because the insurer did not provide the claimant with assistance in applying for social security benefits as provided for under the plan’s terms. The court found that the insurer could not simultaneously enforce the social security offset provision while not complying with its own obligations under the plan to assist the claimant in seeking social security, and the court proceeded to find that loss of the right to enforce the offset was an appropriate remedy for this violation of the plan terms. Offsets of this ilk are routine, and while claimants often complain about them and try to avoid them, they are normally enforced without any big uproar. Not so here, where the insurer managed to lose the right to the offset. What is more interesting is the reasoning of the magistrate judge (whose recommendations were affirmed and adopted by the district court), which, despite application of the arbitrary and capricious standard of review - which would normally grant the insurer great discretion in the interpretation of the plan terms in question - found that the insurer’s own interpretation of the relevant plan terms was simply too far removed from any sensible reading of the plan terms to be upheld. In a realm of the law where many critics feel that the simple fact of applying the arbitrary and capricious standard of review is outcome determinative in favor of the administrator (a sentiment I don’t agree with and a thesis frequently disproved by court rulings), this is a relatively unusual event. The case is McCormick v. Metropolitan Life, and you can find it 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.
When Does Plan Language Mandate De Novo Review?
Permalink | I wanted to take a moment over the next couple of posts to return to a couple of cases from earlier this month that are worth a look and a comment, but that I haven’t had a chance to talk about yet. One of them is a decision by Judge Lindsay of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts from the beginning of the month, Dickerson v. Prudential Insurance Company, in which the court considered the question of whether plan documents actually conferred discretionary authority on the administrator of an ERISA governed long term disability plan; as most of you already know, if it did not, then the court had to decide a dispute over benefits under that plan de novo, while if it did, the court was to decide the dispute by applying a deferential standard of review.
Now, we see many cases finding that discretionary authority is conferred and that deferential review applies, but cases finding the opposite are actually not quite as common. This is usually because the plan in question in a case either clearly grants discretion, or doesn’t do so at all. As a result, it is comparatively infrequent that a court has to address in any depth whether or not particular plan language grants discretion. Into this relative void steps the Dickerson decision, which is an interesting example of a case finding that the particular language used in a plan did not clearly confer discretionary authority. I liked Judge Lindsay’s description of the applicable standard, which was that:
Courts have recognized that "there are no magic words determining the scope of judicial review of decisions to deny benefits." Brigham, 371 F.3d at 81 (quoting Herzberger v. Standard Ins. Co., 205 F.3d 327, 331 (7th Cir. 2000)). Until insurance plans include language that "could leave no doubt about the administrator's discretion . . . we must in fairness carefully consider existing language that falls short of that ideal." Id.
"[T]he critical question is notice: participants must be able to tell from the plan's language whether the plan is one that reserves discretion for the administrator." Diaz v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 424 F.3d 635, 637 (7th Cir. 2005). Language that merely requires a determination of eligibility by the administrator and proof of the applicant's claim "does not give the employee adequate notice that the plan administrator is to make a judgment largely insulated from judicial review by reason of being discretionary." Herzberger, 205 F.3d at 332. Cf. Diaz, 424 F.3d at 639 (for Plan language to confer discretion on the administrator, it must "communicate the idea that the administrator not only had broad-ranging authority to assess compliance with pre-existing criteria, but also has the power to interpret the rules, to implement the rules, and even to change them entirely.").
The Court concluded that the particular language in the plan at issue in Dickerson gave the administrator the “ the power to make the determination” but imposed a list of specific conditions on the exercise of that power. As a result, the judge held that “[b]ecause the Plan language” suggests that "the plan administrator is to make a judgment within the confines of pre-set standards [and does not have] the latitude to shape the application, interpretation, and content of the rules in each case . . . the language [was] insufficient to trigger deferential review by the court.”
Cost of Living Benefits and Disability Benefits
Permalink | There are some who believe that insurance policies are by definition ambiguous - mostly lawyers who solely represent policyholders for a living - and others, on occasion including judges, who sometimes seem to believe that unless a policy specifically excludes something, than it is either ambiguous and provides coverage or simply provides coverage because the policy didn’t come out and say it does not. None of this is correct. Instead, the question of what policies cover should turn on the specific language of the policy in question and the rules of policy interpretation that apply in the specific jurisdiction in question.
The First Circuit applied this proper approach correctly here in this case, Prostkoff v. Paul Revere Life Insurance Company, where the parties disputed whether the plaintiff was entitled to cost of living increases in his disability benefits after the age of 65. The court correctly concluded that the policy language was not ambiguous and that the policy should not be construed to grant such coverage.
There isn’t much law talked about in this case, so I am not sure of its value to practioners, outside of the unlikely event that someone, somewhere, is presented with the exact same dispute over the availability of cost of living adjustments to disability payments after the age of 65. At a minimum, it’s a case that may be worth citing simply as an exemplar of the right approach to interpreting and understanding policy language that may not be perfectly clear on its face.
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.
Summary Plan Descriptions and Discovery in ERISA Cases: the Latest from the First Circuit
Permalink | The First Circuit issued an opinion in the case of Morales-Alejandro v. Medical Card System on Wednesday. The case, which involved a challenge to a denial of long term disability benefits, is noteworthy for two aspects. The first is that the case reaffirms this circuit’s reluctance to allow discovery beyond production of the administrative record in denial of benefits cases prosecuted under ERISA. The court pointed out that, in this circuit anyway, “ERISA cases are generally decided on the administrative record without discovery, and some very good reason is needed to overcome the presumption that the record on review is limited to the record before the administrator."
The second issue of note is that the court addressed the role of summary plan descriptions in ERISA plans and related litigation, and described the role they should play in a litigated dispute over benefits. In particular, the court declared:
ERISA imposes an important requirement on plan administrators and insurers to communicate accurately with plan participants and beneficiaries. See Bard, 471 F.3d at 244-45. Part of the communication requirement is that the SPD provide certain information "written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant, and shall be sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to reasonably apprise such participants and beneficiaries of their rights and obligations under the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1022(a). Section 1022(b) specifies the information to be included in the summary. When the terms, language, or provisions of the SPD conflict with the plan, the language that the claimant reasonably relied on in making and proving his claim will govern the claim process. Bard, 471 F.3d at 245. The burden is on the claimant to show reasonable reliance and resulting prejudice. Id.
The Interrelationship of ERISA and the ADA
Permalink | I have talked in other posts about the rights of plans and their administrators to recoup overpayments of benefits directly from the beneficiary, and of the creative lawyering that has been employed - although generally without much success - by overpaid plan participants in the hope of avoiding paying the funds back. The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island has just issued a very interesting opinion involving this scenario, only this time involving an attempt to rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act to prevent the repayment; this tactic didn’t work either, except to the extent that a claim that the attempt to recoup the overpayment was retaliatory could survive a motion to dismiss. The case is Hatch v. Pitney Bowes, Inc.
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.
Mike Webster to Ted Johnson: Are the NFL and the New York Times Kidding?
I don’t want to turn this blog into a soapbox, and as someone who really likes newspapers, I also don’t want to join the Greek chorus of self-appointed media watchdogs that seems to make up much of the blogosphere. Some things, however, such as this article in the New York Times, call out for a skeptical and critical reaction. The article explains how the NFL has now created a program to provide some funding for long term, home or facility, care for former pro players who “have various forms of dementia,” even though the NFL insists that football injuries to the brain - multiple concussion syndrome, anyone, for those of you who follow the sport? - are not the cause. The article seems to credit the NFL for providing this help to former players - help that, despite the vast wealth of the league, is capped at $88,000 a year - and praises the idea that this problem is being resolved through this program rather than by litigation, i.e. by former players suing the NFL. Astoundingly, the article describes the program as addressing an unmet need because, and I quote the Times here on this, “former players who have dementia do not qualify for the N.F.L.’s disability insurance program, because neither the league nor the union consider their conditions football-related, a stance that has been cast in doubt by several scientific studies.”
And yet, as I discussed in this post several months ago, the family of the late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster litigated that exact issue for years, finally defeating the NFL, the players association and the plan before the Fourth Circuit court of appeals, to recover benefits under the league’s ERISA governed pension and disability system for exactly this type of injury. The Fourth Circuit’s opinion, in fact, was a pretty powerful condemnation of the roadblocks that had been tossed in Webster and the estate’s path in their attempt to obtain the benefits.
Which brings me to a couple of points that should be kept in mind in reading the Times article and considering the value of the NFL’s new program that the article praises. First, I suspect that the pension plan/disability plan system that the Webster family targeted provides far greater benefits than does this separate plan discussed in the article. If so, the idea that former players should pursue help under that program, rather than through the pension plan, is a disservice to retired players. Second, again if I am right about the greater benefits available under the pension/disability plan, then one has to wonder whether the separate NFL plan discussed in this article, although commendable for providing some help to aging players, actually serves as something of a Trojan horse (not a perfect analogy, I know) that, intentionally or otherwise, draws retired players away from seeking the larger payouts of the pension/disability system and instead to this plan. And third, given that a leading federal court of appeals with a significant track record in ERISA cases has already found that the NFL’s pension and disability plan actually does cover brain injuries of this type, the article is simply off-base in stating that dementia falls outside of the plan.
The article notes the relevance of this issue to some high profile recent players, such as Ted Johnson of the Patriots, 34, whose doctors”said he was exhibiting the depression and memory lapses associated with oncoming Alzheimer’s.” Those players should, notwithstanding this article, first be looking to the NFL’s pension and disability plans, particularly in light of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in the Webster case, for compensation and care, before settling for the limited assistance provided by this alternative plan.
And finally, this whole matter brings me back to an issue I have talked about in the past, about questionable decision making by courts concerning what decisions to publish and what ones not to publish in the ERISA context. The Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Webster case, to my recollection, was not marked for publication (you can locate it, however, at my earlier post on that case). Yet, really, the scope of NFL plan benefits for this type of mental injury had never been resolved before, and it remains, as this article in the Times reflects, not well understood, making this an opinion that probably should have been published, and should not have been part of what I have called in the past “the hidden law of ERISA.”
Insurance Brokers as ERISA Defendants
Roy Harmon, over at his Health Plan Law blog, has his typically scholarly take on two recent rulings out of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire in the case of Hopper v. Standard Insurance Company. The rulings primarily revolve around the question of which claims in the lawsuit are preempted under ERISA, and the law, reasoning and rulings of the court on these issues is consistent with First Circuit law, which grants a pretty broad sweep to ERISA preemption. What caught my eye about the case, however, and was of particular interest to me, was the discussion of whether the claims against one of the defendant entities that was involved in the insurance program at issue, namely the insurance broker, were preempted. The court, in one of its two rulings, determined that the broker did not play the role of a fiduciary, was not subject to ERISA, and that the claims against it were not preempted as a result. The court explained:
Hopper's misrepresentation claims against WGA [the insurance broker], however, are different. Unlike Standard, which functions as an ERISA entity, see Hampers, 202 F.3d at 53 (citing Stetson v. PFL Ins. Co., 16 F. Supp. 2d 28, 33 (D. Me. 1998))(explaining that the "primary ERISA entities are the employer, the plan, the plan fiduciaries, and the beneficiaries of the plan"), WGA is strictly an insurance broker, engaged in sales and marketing functions.
WGA had no direct control over Standard's insurance policy or the benefits plan. WGA did not administer the plan, and did not determine participant eligibility for benefits or consider appeals of benefit denial. Put differently, Hopper's claims against WGA are limited to WGA's "role as a seller of insurance, not as an administrator of an employee benefits plan." Woodworker's Supply, Inc. v. Principal Mut. Life Ins. Co., 170 F.3d 985, 991 (10th Cir. 1999).
This result is consistent with the underlying goal of ERISA "to protect the interests of employees and other beneficiaries of employee benefit plans." Morstein v. Nat'l Ins. Servs., Inc., 93 F.3d 715, 723 (11th Cir. 1996). "If ERISA preempts a beneficiary's potential cause of action for misrepresentation, employees, beneficiaries, and employers choosing among various plans will no longer be able to rely on the representations of the insurance agent regarding the terms of the plan." Id. As a result "[t]hese employees, whom Congress sought to protect, will find themselves unable to make informed choices regarding available benefit plans where state law places the duty on agents to deal honestly with applicants." Id. at 723-24.
Accordingly, Hopper's misrepresentation claims against WGA are not preempted by ERISA.
I think at least this part of the ruling, though arguable, is correct, so I don’t have any real quibble with it. What catches my eye, however, is the issue it raises, of whether an entity involved with an ERISA governed plan is better off staying out of the eye of the storm by avoiding a role that would grant it fiduciary status, or is instead better off playing a large enough role in the administration of the plan to end up being assigned that status. Falling outside of the ERISA framework leaves the entity exposed, as was the broker here, to a range of common law and state statutory claims; indeed, the potential exposure of such a defendant is limited only by the imagination of plaintiffs’ lawyers (and to a certain degree, the actual facts). On the other hand, coming within the realm of entities regulated by ERISA would preclude those types of claims from being asserted against the entity, while limiting recovery to that which is authorized by ERISA.
Granted, it is probably not something that the insurance broker in the Hopper case gave any thought to at the commencement of its involvement with the plan in question, but it might be something for any entity playing a role in an ERISA governed plan to consider at the outset of their retention: should they put themselves in a position to be a fiduciary subject to ERISA, or should they avoid that like the plague?
Mike Webster, the NFL and ERISA
Permalink | They say that professional football is far and away the most successful entertainment business - let alone sports league - in the country, but behind the scenes all is not tea and roses, quite clearly. Anyone who follows the sport knows the physical toll it takes on many of its best players, and a dark story of that aspect of the sport has been playing out in the courts for some time now, involving the debilitating injuries, and subsequent claim for disability benefits, of one of football’s bigger stars, the former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. Webster, we learn from a lawsuit his estate brought seeking higher benefits than those awarded to him by the administrator of the National Football League’s retirement plan, “was diagnosed in 1998 with brain damage resulting from multiple head injuries he incurred while playing football.” He thereafter received from the retirement plan the lesser of two possible disability benefit awards available under the league’s retirement plan.
Lawyers for Webster eventually sued the retirement plan, alleging that the plan was governed by ERISA and that the plan administrator abused its discretion in denying the higher of the benefit awards to Webster, and in awarding him only the lower of the two. Discretion was reserved to the administrator in no uncertain terms, and yet the courts had no trouble concluding that the discretion had been abused, and in therefore overruling the plan’s benefit decision. As any of you who practice in this field or regularly read this blog know, a finding that an administrator acted arbitrarily and capriciously and abused its discretion - warranting rejection of the administrator’s determination - is a relatively uncommon event.
As a result, when one gets beyond the sports story interest raised by the case, the interesting question that is left behind is what was it about the administrator’s determination that drove the court to such a conclusion. And the answer to that question is telling: the Fourth Circuit had little trouble concluding that an abuse of discretion had occurred because “[w]hile recognizing that the decisions of a neutral plan administrator are entitled to great deference, we are nevertheless constrained to find on these facts that the Board lacked substantial evidence to justify its denial here. In particular, the Board ignored the unanimous medical evidence, including that of its own expert, disregarded the conclusion of its own appointed investigator, and relied for its determination on factors disallowed by the Plan.”
Well, if you think about it, how can those facts be anything but an abuse of discretion? And in many ways, that is what is different about this case from most denial of benefit cases, in which claimants routinely assert that an administrator wrongly weighed the evidence in the administrative record and therefore committed an abuse of discretion; in those typical cases, the evidence in the administrative record is subject to differing possible conclusions, and ERISA grants the administrator - so long as it was granted discretion by the plan documents - the freedom to select which of those possible conclusions should apply. Here, however, the administrator was not picking among possible conclusions warranted by the evidence, but was instead selecting a conclusion that was entirely contradicted by the overwhelming - and it appears possibly unanimous - evidence before it. That, we see quite clearly in this case, is beyond the outer edge of an administrator’s discretion.
The case, which is interesting for those of you interested in football, in Mike Webster, or in ERISA, is Sunny Jani, Administrator of the Estate of Michael L. Webster v. the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, out of the Fourth Circuit this week.
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.
Employee Welfare Benefit Plans and the Small Employer
Preemption is a tough defense to get around, particularly in the First Circuit, where it is taken quite seriously and numerous decisions expressly declare particular state law causes of action to be preempted by ERISA. One clever response to this problem, at least when the facts will allow the argument, is to try to sidestep any fight over preemption itself by arguing that the benefit at issue was not even provided by an employee welfare benefit plan and that as a result, ERISA does not apply and state law claims over the denial of the benefits are actionable. There is more room to maneuver on such an argument than in a battle over preemption, because the test recognized in the First Circuit for determining whether a benefit was in fact provided by an employee welfare benefit plan is mutlipronged, fact based, and, on at least some elements of the test, rather amorphous. At the same time, however, it doesn't take much for an employee benefit to qualify as an ERISA governed employee welfare benefit plan, at least in this circuit.
The test is laid out and then explored in great detail in a recent decision, James O'Leary v. Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co., by Judge Saylor of the United States District Court here in Massachusetts. The court explained that "an employee welfare benefit plan has five elements: (1) a plan, fund, or program (2) established or maintained (3) by an employer or by an employee organization, or by both, (4) for the purpose of providing. . . disability. . . benefits (5) to participants or their beneficiaries," and that these are factual inquiries. In many instances involving larger employers, the application of these factors and the conclusion that should be reached are transparent from the outset; even without looking closely at the factors, there is little room to doubt that, for example, a large company's disability benefits plan for its employees satisfies these elements and is an ERISA governed plan.
What made the application of these factors interesting in the case before the court was the particular dynamic generated by the fact that it was a small employer and many of the facts at issue with regard to the employment benefit in question were unique to that one employee who was denied the benefits in question and was filing suit. This fact pattern took the case out of the realm of if it "looks like a duck and walks like a duck, its an employee welfare benefit plan," and placed it instead in the realm of coverages that might just be personal to the employee rather than part of an ERISA governed plan. It wasn't, the court eventually concluded, but the analysis in reaching that point is informative.
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.
Interpreting ERISA Plans and Insurance Policies
ERISA on the web generally does a nice job of chronicling ERISA decisions out of the Eleventh Circuit, but one of its recent posts, about an August 8th decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, jumped out at me more than most. The post discusses the case of Billings v UNUM Life Insurance Company, a case involving whether a pediatrician was entitled to continued disability benefits after being disabled due to obsessive compulsive disorder, or whether, instead, the mental health limitation in the plan limited the length of time to which he was entitled to benefits. Although the case presents a somewhat unusual, and certainly curiosity invoking, fact pattern, that is not what drew my attention. Instead, what caught my eye when reading the post was that it discussed the decision and described the court's reasoning in a manner that made me think not of ERISA litigation, but instead of the other focus of this blog, insurance coverage litigation. As the post described and the court's opinion reflects, the Eleventh Circuit decided the question by applying rules of policy construction to the plan language at issue that we more often see in insurance coverage disputes, such as the doctrine of contra proferentem (a fancy way of saying construe ambiguities in the document against the drafter, which in the insurance context most often means against the insurer); the court then decided on that basis whether or not the plan language limited the physician's benefits.
The post left hanging the question of why such an approach was applied, rather than the more typical approach of the court yielding to the administrator's interpretation of the plan language and ultimate decision so long as both were reasonable and rationally supported by the evidence, but it was easy to guess the reason, and a quick jump over to the opinion itself confirmed it; the plan at issue did not grant discretion to the plan administrator, meaning that the court, and not the administrator, was the ultimate decision maker on the issues presented by the claim.
What interested me most about the case, and the post, was that it illustrated the extent to which if you remove the deferential standard of review usually required of courts deciding benefit cases under ERISA from the equation, they would become, essentially, insurance coverage cases, consisting of a dispute over the plan language and an eventual decision by a court over which interpretation - that favored by the plan or that favored by the claimant - should be selected, with the outcome of that determination essentially deciding who wins. That is insurance coverage litigation in a nutshell, but normally is not ERISA benefits litigation in a nutshell.
Long Term Disabilty Benefits, Human Behavior and Standards of Review
An article in the New York Times yesterday on men who simply won't go back to work caught my eye because at times expressly and at other times by implication, it delves into the potent mix of cultural and behavioral forces that seem to impact what we offhandedly refer to as "work ethic." The behavioral and cultural issues noted in the article circle back to an interesting point in litigation involving ERISA governed long term disability plans, which is that - so long as certain legal requirements are met - the plans and their administrators have a great deal of discretion in deciding whether or not someone is disabled or should, instead, be expected to return to work in some capacity or another. In real world terms, in the course of litigation, this grant of discretion provides plans and administrators with a certain amount of power over plan beneficiaries with regard to the question of whether the beneficiary is truly disabled or instead belongs at work.
The general ins and outs of the discretion granted to administrators in that circumstance, I won't discuss in much detail here. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note that when an ERISA governed disability plan grants the administrator discretion in interpreting and applying the plan's terms, the administrator has a great deal of latitude in its decision making, generally subject only to the requirement that the decision be reasonable (with the case law providing further detail as to what reasonable means in that context). This issue is delved into in more detail here. Although lawyers for claimants often object to this line of thinking, this grant of discretion is usually considered to be acceptable on the thesis that it fits with Congress' intention to encourage employers, by making it relatively easy to provide them and by limiting employers' exposure to liability, to provide such benefits.
But the New York Times article points to another possible - and real world - justification for granting such discretion to plans and their administrators, and for granting them great leeway in determining whether a claimant is sufficiently employable to be expected to work rather than collect long term disability benefits. Discussing disability benefits under social security, the article points out:
The ailments that qualify them are usually real, like back pain, heart trouble or mental illness. But in some cases, the illnesses are not so serious that they would prevent people from working if a well-paying job with benefits were an option.
The disability program, in turn, is an obstacle to working again. Taking a job holds the risk of demonstrating that one can earn a living and is thus no longer entitled to the monthly payments. But staying out of work has consequences. Skills deteriorate, along with the desire for a paying job and the habits that it requires.
"The longer you stay on disability benefits," said Martin H. Gerry, deputy commissioner for disability and income security at the Social Security Administration, "the longer you're out of the work force, the less likely you are to go back to work."
Now I have no basis to know whether these statements are correct, or whether there is independent research to support - or for that matter to discredit - these points. If true, however, they may suggest an independent justification - possibly intended but more likely simply fortuitous - for granting such authority to plans and their administrators, namely that it may counterbalance a disabled employee's own tendency to prefer the safe harbor of disability benefits to the riskier and harder course of returning to work.