“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

Disputes over the meaning of a word or phrase in an insured benefit plan almost always end up with the litigants feeling like they have gone through the looking glass to a place where the words you thought you understood all your life suddenly mean something entirely different.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is Carlile v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., — F.3d –, 2021 WL 671582 (10th Cir, Feb. 22, 2021), where the dispute revolved around whether Mr. Carlile was an “active, Full-time Employee” when he became disabled.

Mr. Carlile had worked for the disability plan sponsor for about four years when he was given notice in March 2016, that he was being laid off as part of a reduction in force effective June 20, 2016. Accompanying the notice was a lump-sum payment of his wages for the notice period, and the confirmation that he no longer needed to come into work. Apparently, though, he continued to visit the office “at his convenience” until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer on May 31, 2016. Apparently his “last day of work” (whatever that means) was June 7, 2016. He filed a claim for LTD benefits, which Reliance Standard denied, finding that Mr. Carlile’s participation in the disability plan had terminated before June 7, because he was no longer an “active, Full-time Employee.”

Follow us through the looking glass as we watch the Tenth Circuit explore: why the meaning of “active, Full-time Employee” is not influenced at all by the plan’s definitions of “Actively at Work” or “Active Work;” why the court’s own prior decision defining “actively at work full time” in a similar context supported Reliance only “at first glance”; and why determining how much an employee worked during his “regular work week” apparently does not require proof of how much the employee ever really worked at all. At the end of the journey, it turns out that “active” really means nothing, because an “active, Full-time Employee” is exactly the same as a “Full-time Employee.”
Continue Reading Tenth Circuit Decides That An “Active, Full-time Employee” Is Entirely Different Than an Employee Who is “Actively at Work”

Plaintiffs seeking recovery of group disability benefits under ERISA-governed plans routinely argue that claim fiduciaries failed to adequately consider and/or account for decisions by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to award Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. As a result, federal courts are regularly tasked with evaluating the substance and sufficiency of discussions of SSDI awards (that are made a part of the administrative record) in adverse benefit determination letters.
Continue Reading Third Circuit Clarifies Sufficiency Of Discussions Of Social Security Disability Insurance Awards In Adverse Disability Benefit Determinations Under Pre-2018 ERISA Claims Procedure Regulation

In 2010, Chief Justice John Roberts observed that that ERISA is “an enormously complex and detailed statute.” Conkright v. Frommert, 559 U.S. 506, 509 (2010).

Some things don’t change. A recent decision out of the District Court of New Jersey exemplifies how even the most seemingly mundane procedural act — removal — implicates legal nuances with which courts continue to grapple.
Continue Reading D.N.J. Rejects Plaintiff’s Fee Request In Connection With State Court Remand Of Action Removed Under ERISA, Scaling Back Earlier Charge That Defendant’s Removal Was Nonsensical

In Cook v. Life Insurance Company of North America et al., No. 3:20-cv-139, the plaintiff, Robert Cook, sued Life Insurance Company of North America (LINA), and its indirect corporate parent, Cigna Corporation, for denial of long-term disability benefits under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Cook lived in Tennessee (and his lawyer was located there), his employer/plan sponsor was based in Florida, and LINA, the insurer, was located in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, Cook brought suit in Connecticut, alleging venue was proper because he had also sued LINA’s indirect parent, Cigna Corporation, which is a Connecticut corporation.
Continue Reading Connecticut District Court Enforces ERISA Venue Provisions and Dismisses Lawsuit with No Connection to Connecticut

Excerpt of a contributed article published by DRI in the August 2020 issue of For The Defense.

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads within the United States, questions arise over the potential effect that it may have on private group health and disability plans during and after the current pandemic. This article discusses recent federal

Those involved in disability claims administration may wish to consider the potential impacts of the current global pandemic. In the current crisis, disability claims regulations may not be at the top of many peoples’ minds. However, insurers, plan administrators, and other involved in disability claims administration may wish to reevaluate the applicable Department of Labor deadlines and requirements in light of present pressures on medical personnel, persons with serious health problems, and business disruptions.
Continue Reading Disability Claims Regulations and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Video surveillance can be an extremely effective tool in making disability benefits determinations.  Historically, courts have cautioned that the weight given to surveillance in these cases depends both on the amount and nature of the activity observed. A recent ERISA case out of the Western District of Tennessee provides insurers with guidance on the use of video surveillance in disability benefits decisions. The case is Eaton v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., No. 2:16-cv-02764-TLP-cgc, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 127488, at *1 (W.D. Tenn. July 31, 2018).
Continue Reading New Case Gives Guidance on Video Surveillance in Disability Cases

Significant changes to the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) rules regulating disability claims procedures are now in force.  These new rules apply to claims filed on or after April 1, 2018.

ERISA directs the Secretary of Labor to establish and maintain rules which ensure that plan fiduciaries and insurance providers fully and fairly review claims for ERISA-governed benefits.  The DOL’s rules regulating claims procedures are set forth at 29 C.F.R. §  2560.503-1, which contains detailed direction as to the claims handling process for both group health plans and disability plans.  Historically, 29 C.F.R. §  2560.503-1 imposed similar obligations on group health plans and disability plans.  That changed in 2010, however, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, under which claims procedures for group health plans were significantly modified, while procedures for disability plans remained untouched.
Continue Reading New DOL Disability Regulations Now Effective

In a recent news release, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) of the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed that its final rule amending the disability claims procedure requirements applicable to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans (the “Final Rule”) will go into effect on April 1, 2018.

Continue Reading No Fooling: U.S. Department of Labor Confirms That The Disability Claims Regulations Will Go Into Effect on April 1, 2018 Without Further Delay or Modification

In today’s Federal Register, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) of the U.S. Department of Labor has published its notice delaying, by 90 days, the applicable date of its final rule amending the disability claims procedure requirements applicable to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans (the “Final Rule”). The new claims procedures had initially been set to become applicable on January 1, 2018.  That date has now been delayed to April 1, 2018.

The new claims procedures of the Final Rule apply to all ERISA plans that provide disability benefits, which include not only short-term and long-term disability plans but also other types of ERISA plans with disability provisions, such as many retirement plans. The purpose of the delay is to provide EBSA with time to consider the Final Rule’s impact on the group disability insurance market, in light of President Trump’s Executive Order 13777 directing federal agencies to evaluate regulations (with input from affected entities) with an eye toward reducing regulatory burden and expense.
Continue Reading EBSA Formally Extends Applicability Date of Disability Claims Regulations to April 1, 2018; Time to Comment on the Regulations Ends Soon