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

On October 6, 2017, the Department of Labor signed a proposed Rule “to delay for ninety (90) days – through April 1, 2018 – the applicability of the Final Rule amending the claims procedure requirements applicable to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans that provide disability benefits.”

Specifically, the DOL proposes:

Section 2560.503-1 is amended by removing “on or after January 1, 2018” and adding in its place “after April 1, 2018” in paragraph (p)(3) and by removing the date “December 31, 2017” and adding in its place “April 1, 2018” in paragraph (p)(4).

The proposed rule is scheduled to be officially published on October 12, 2017. There will be a 15-day period for comments on the proposal to extend the applicability date. There will also be a 60-day period to submit “comments providing data and otherwise germane to the examination of the merits of rescinding, modifying, or retaining the rule[.]”
Continue Reading Department of Labor Proposes to Delay Implementation of Disability Claim Regulations

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

In Milby v. MCMC LLC, 844 F.3d 605 (6th Cir. 2016), the plaintiff had her claim for disability benefits terminated following a peer review by a doctor engaged through MCMC. The plaintiff lived in Kentucky, and the peer reviewer was not licensed there. Accordingly, the plaintiff sued MCMC for negligence per se for practicing medicine in Kentucky without a license. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
Continue Reading ERISA Preempts Negligence Claim Against Disability Peer Reviewer

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

On December 19, 2016, the Department of Labor ended a year-long process to update the regulations governing claim procedures for disability plans, 29 C.F.R. §  2560.503-1. The text of the new regulations, and the DOL’s explanation of changes and the comment process, can be found here.

The DOL’s express goal in establishing these new regulations is to “strengthen[] the current rules primarily by adopting certain procedural protections and safeguards for disability benefit claims that are currently applicable to claims for group health benefits pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.” The DOL concluded that a stronger regulation was needed, in part, because “disability cases dominate the ERISA litigation landscape today[.]”
Continue Reading DOL Issues New Regulations for Plans Providing Disability Benefits

In Okuno v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 836 F.3d 600 (6th Cir. 2016), the court considered the proper interpretation of a mental illness limitation on coverage for disabilities “caused by or contributed to by” mental illness.
Continue Reading Sixth Circuit adopts “but for” test for applying mental illness limitation