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.

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