Discretionary Authority

In Ariana M. v. Humana Health Plan of Tex., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5227, *5, 2018 WL 1096980 (March 1, 2018) (“Ariana M. II”), a majority of judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in an en banc decision, recently overturned its quarter century old holding in Pierre v. Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, 932 F.2d 1552 (5th Cir. 1991), which held that the factual determinations of ERISA benefit plan claim administrators are entitled to deference, regardless of whether the plan includes a grant of discretionary authority. Under Pierre, the Fifth Circuit has long held that such factual determinations can only be overturned if they are found to be arbitrary and capricious. In overturning its holding in Pierre, the Fifth Circuit joined nine sister circuits in ruling that all aspects of ERISA benefit denials will be reviewed de novo unless the governing plan delegates discretionary authority to the claim administrator.
Continue Reading Fifth Circuit Joins Sister Circuits by Overruling Default Deferential Standard of Review

For more than twenty-five years, the law of the Fifth Circuit has been that health and disability benefit denials based on factual determinations (e.g., whether a beneficiary is disabled or whether a treatment is medically necessary within the meaning of a plan) are reviewed by courts under an abuse of discretion standard, regardless of whether a subject plan includes discretionary “Firestone” language. Pierre v. Connecticut General Life Ins. Co., 932 F.2d 1552, 1553 (5th Cir.) cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 453 (1991).

The Fifth Circuit’s so-called “Pierre deference” was recently challenged in the case of Ariana M. v. Humana Health Plan of Texas Inc., No. 16-20174 (5th Cir. Apr. 21, 2017). In Ariana M., the plaintiff argued that a Texas statute prohibiting the use of discretionary clauses in insurance policies overrode the Fifth Circuit’s default Pierre deference, under which district courts are directed to “reject[ ] an administrator’s factual determinations in the course of a benefits review only upon the showing of an abuse of discretion.” Dutka ex rel. Estate of T.M. v. AIG Life Ins. Co., 573 F.3d 210, 212 (5th Cir. 2009).  The plaintiff argued that Texas’s specific ban on the use of discretionary language in insurance policies precluded the district court from conducting a deferential review of Humana’s factual findings, and thus compelled application of the more favorable de novo standard.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument, unanimously finding that “Texas’s anti-discretionary clause law concerns what language can and cannot be put into an insurance contract in Texas.  It does not mandate a specific standard of review for insurance claims.B” Consequently, “Texas’s anti-discretionary clause law does not change [the Fifth Circuit’s] normal Pierre deference”, and courts in the Circuit will continue to apply Pierre deference to all factual determinations even in cases arising out of insurance policies issued in Texas. In this regard, Ariana M. preserves the status quo.
Continue Reading Fifth Circuit Maintains Default Deferential Standard Of Review In Denial Of Benefit Claims, But Suggests It May Soon Be Overruled

In Geiger v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 845 F.3d 357 (7th Cir. 2017), Aetna initially determined that plaintiff qualified for disability benefits due to bilateral avascular necrosis in her ankles, which prevented walking and driving. When the definition of disability was about to change, Aetna conducted an Independent Medical Exam, which found her capable of sedentary work, and had plaintiff surveilled, which showed her driving and visiting multiple stores. Aetna terminated benefits. On appeal, Aetna reinstated benefits in May 2013, after one of two peer reviewers determined  she was not capable of sedentary work.

Aetna later conducted additional surveillance, again showing plaintiff driving and shopping, and terminated benefits again in May 2014, based on a nurse’s clinical review and a Transferrable Skills Analysis. On appeal, Aetna had obtained a third peer review, which concluded that plaintiff could perform sedentary work. Aetna also sent the peer review and surveillance to plaintiff’s doctors; only one responded, and said that the surveilled activities were the result of substantial amounts of pain medication. A follow up peer review did not  change the initial conclusion.
Continue Reading Disability Plan Administrator Can Reasonably Change its Mind About Sufficiency of Evidence

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that claim fiduciaries must strictly comply with ERISA claim regulations or lose the deferential standard of review, as we have discussed in previous posts: Second Circuit rejects “substantial compliance” rule, Insurer’s Failure to Establish “Special Circumstances” for Extension of Time to Decide LTD Appeal Warrants De Novo Review, and District of Connecticut Rules that Violations of Claims Procedure Regulations Result in Loss of Discretion.

While other courts have not applied the same strict level of scrutiny to the claims regulations as Halo and its progeny, the Ninth Circuit recently held that a procedural violation in the claims-handling process may warrant de novo review if it resulted in substantive harm to the claimant. In Smith v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., Dkt. # No. 16-15319 (9th Cir., March 16, 2017), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a district court’s order in favor of the insurer on a plan participant’s claims for short- and long-term disability benefits, remanding the case back to the district court for further consideration.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Holds That Violation of DOL Claim Regulations Can Result in a Loss of Deference

Following the 2016 decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Halo v. Yale Health Plan, 819 F.3d 42 (2d Cir. 2016), in which the Second Circuit rejected the doctrine of “substantial compliance” with ERISA claim regulations in favor of a much stricter interpretation, courts within the Second Circuit have increasingly held insurers and other claims fiduciaries to a high standard of compliance with the claim regulations, regardless of the type of benefit at issue.

Under Halo, a plan’s failure to comply with the claims-procedure regulations will result in that claim being reviewed de novo, unless the plan has otherwise “established procedures in full conformity” with the regulations and can show that its failure to comply with the regulations was both inadvertent and harmless. We have previously written about this here and here.

Most recently, in Schuman v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39388 (D. Conn. Mar. 20, 2017), the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled that Halo compelled de novo review of a denial of long-term disability benefits, despite the grant of discretion in the plan. The plaintiff (plan participant) alleged several violations of the claims-procedure regulations, including: failure to adequately consider a vocational assessment submitted by the plaintiff; improper deference to the initial decision on appeal; failure to provide copies of internal policy guidelines upon request; and lack of adequate safeguards to ensure that claims decisions were made in accordance with the applicable plan document.
Continue Reading District of Connecticut Rules that Violations of Claims Procedure Regulations Result in Loss of Discretion

In a recent decision from the Southern District of New York in a case concerning a dispute over the denial of long-term disability (LTD) benefits, a District Court judge held that the LTD insurer had failed to establish special circumstances warranting an extension of the time frame for deciding the claimant’s appeal during the administrative review process. The Court determined that this constituted a violation of the claims processing regulations under ERISA, thereby warranting a de novo review of the insurer’s decision rather than the arbitrary and capricious standard of review that otherwise would apply.

The case, Salisbury v. Prudential Insurance Co. (Dkt. 15-cv-9799, S.D.N.Y.), involves a claim by an employee for LTD benefits under an employer-sponsored ERISA benefit plan. LTD benefits were provided through a group insurance policy issued by Prudential, who served as the claims administrator. After Prudential initially denied the employee’s claim for LTD benefits, the employee appealed the decision with Prudential, as claimants generally must exhaust their administrative remedies prior to initiating litigation. Under the existing U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) claim regulations, Prudential had 45 days to issue a decision on the appeal. 
Continue Reading Insurer’s Failure to Establish “Special Circumstances” for Extension of Time to Decide LTD Appeal Warrants De Novo Review

In Halo v. Yale Health Plan, 819 F.3d 42 (2d Cir. 2016), the Second Circuit made a significant change to the impact of ERISA claim regulations on subsequent litigation, rejecting the rule that it is sufficient for claim administrators to substantially comply with the regulations. Instead, the court held that, unless there is strict compliance with the regulations, courts will ordinarily conduct a de novo review of claim determinations, though it established a path for administrators to retain the arbitrary and capricious standard of review.
Continue Reading Second Circuit rejects “substantial compliance” rule

Shaw v. AT&T Umbrella Ben. Plan No. 1, 795 F.3d 538 (6th Cir. 2015) concerned denial of plaintiff’s claim for disability due to chronic neck pain. The district court affirmed the denial, but the 6th Circuit reversed, finding the determination arbitrary and capricious.

The court took issue with much of the claim

Roganti v. Met. Life Ins. Co., 786 F.3d 201 (2d Cir. 2015), involved a dispute over the effect an arbitral award for improper employment practices had on pension benefits. The opinion is useful for generalizing into the pension context many of the rules underpinning the arbitrary and capricious standard of review as applied to benefit claims. The court’s generalization of those rules, in turn, can be helpful in benefit claims.
Continue Reading Evidence Supporting a Claim Can Be Insufficient, Even if Undisputed