How dare the Supreme Court issue a major ERISA ruling while I am tied up in court this morning! How inconsiderate of my schedule. Given that there are only a few of us blogging regularly on these issues, seems to me the least the Court could have done is coordinate the release of its opinion in MetLife v. Glenn – concerning the effect of structural conflicts of interest on judicial review of an administrator’s decision – with each of us (yes, I am talking about you, Paul, and Roy, and Brian, and Suzanne, and whoever else I am forgetting about right now).
Either way, here is the decision, and here is the Workplace Prof’s take on it. For the most part, the Court pretty much did exactly what I said it would after the oral argument: decide that structural conflicts must be taken into account in passing on an administrator’s decision, even under a deferential standard of review, without making any sort of significant change to the general rubric for passing on an administrator’s determination in such circumstances. As I have said in the past, the variety of approaches to this issue taken by different circuits mandated that the Court, as it did today, impose some sort of overall rule governing the issue. However, as the concurring and dissenting justices point out, the majority did so, but without really imposing any clear guidance as to exactly how the lower courts should apply the conflict. Rather, the majority simply established that it was a factor to be considered when conducting discretionary review; does not alter the standard of review itself (i.e., render discretionary review instead de novo); and is not a factor to be considered by applying any particular rubric for analysis.
Personally, and as I have argued in posts in the past, my own experience in the courtroom makes me favor what turned out to be the Chief Justice’s take, not accepted by the majority, that the rule should simply be that the conflict can only be taken into account in reviewing the administrator’s decision upon proof that the administrator’s decision was animated or otherwise affected in some manner by the conflict. The actual play of evidence in litigation makes this a workable standard, and establishes some guidance as to exactly how courts, passing on challenges to administrators’ determinations, are to analyze structural conflicts of interest. The majority rule leaves the question of how the structural conflict is to affect any particular determination amorphous and unpredictable.