Supreme Court to Weigh In on Structural Conflicts of Interest

I suggested some time ago that the Supreme Court looked poised to weigh in on some of the more tempestuous ERISA issues floating around the circuit courts of appeal, and there is probably no single issue that has raised more hackles than the question of so-called structural conflicts of interest, which exists when the administrator who decides a claim for benefits under ERISA is also the party who will have to pay the benefits if the claim is allowed. The lower courts have created a wide range of rules as to how, and when, such a conflict can alter the standard of review that a district court is to apply when passing on a benefit determination made by such an administrator.

SCOTUSBlog reported on Friday that the Supreme Court has now accepted cert on a case presenting this exact issue. To quote SCOTUS:

An ERISA case added to the docket tests whether the manager of an employee benefit plan has an illegal conflict of interest if the plan gives that individual the authority both to pay benefits and to rule on eligibility for benefits (MetLife v. Glenn, 06-923). In addition to that question, the Court added a second issue to be addressed: if that is a conflict of interest, how should that be taken into account by a court reviewing a specific benefit decision. The Sixth Circuit Court, in conflict with some federal appeals courts but in agreement with others, ruled that the dual role of funding and decider for plan administrators is a potential conflict of interest that must be weighed in judging a plan manager’s benefit eligibility ruling.

There is certainly benefit to the Court weighing in on this issue and hopefully adding some conformity across the federal courts on this issue; as I have discussed in other posts, such as here, different rules apply to this type of situation in different circuits, and it obviously makes no sense for a federal statute to be interpreted and applied differently dependent simply on the state in which a lawsuit over the issue is filed. However, as I have argued before in these digital pages, I think the whole issue of this so-called structural conflict of interest is something of a tempest in a teapot, and I do not agree with those, such as the Workplace Prof in his post on this same subject, who think that the mere existence of such a dual role on the part of the administrator warrants treating the decision maker as suspect and the decision as unworthy of the deference normally granted to an administrator operating under the appropriate grant of discretionary authority. Rather, either there is evidence before a court from which it can be determined or at least inferred that the administrator’s dual role affected the outcome, or there isn’t. While it may make sense to take that conflict into account in the former instance, where evidence exists that the administrator actually acted in a conflicted manner, there is no logical basis to do so in the latter instance; in the absence of evidence that the dual role actually affected the outcome, changing the standard of review constitutes nothing more than punishing the administrator simply based on its status, and not on evidence of misconduct. Last I looked, that’s not generally how we do things in the courts of this country.