I could not let this go by without commenting on it, coming as it does on the heels of multiple posts on the question of whether to arbitrate coverage disputes. This story, arbitration award and federal lawsuit take the subject a full step – at least – further, into the realm of ERISA and its intersection, somehow, with the Defense of Marriage Act. Better still, it manages to do this while folding in as well a claim that an arbitrator overstepped his authority, requiring that his ruling be vacated.
As the plaintiff describes it on its website, “[t]he Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) filed a suit in federal court today seeking to reverse an arbitration award that denied health insurance benefits to the same-sex spouse of a registered nurse employed by Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill, Mass, which is owned by Essent Healthcare of Nashville, Tenn.”
The arbitrator was charged with determining whether this was appropriate under a collective bargaining agreement, but to do so, he felt compelled to determine how the intersection of ERISA and the Defense of Marriage Act impacted that question. Based at least in significant part on his analysis of the interplay of these two statutes, he found against the nurse seeking coverage.
While the interplay of those two statutes may present a somewhat unique circumstance, what followed isn’t; the party aggrieved by the arbitration award filed an action in federal court to set aside the award, on the ground that the arbitrator overstepped his authority by ranging outside of his charge under the collective bargaining agreement. As readers of my prior post on this exact type of challenge know, courts are clearly responsible for analyzing whether or not an arbitrator engaged in such conduct and should set aside a ruling if that was the case. The complaint alleges that the arbitrator’s decision making and the sources for it were expressly limited by the terms of the agreement requiring arbitration, but the arbitrator went outside of those sources to make his decision. If true, this is a textbook example of an arbitrator improperly exceeding his or her authority.