The Death of the Abuse of Discretion Standard of Review in ERISA Disability Insurance Cases in California

Posted in: Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, ERISA, Insurance Blog July 29, 2015

When an insured obtains his or her disability insurance coverage from an employer, more often than not, that claim is governed by Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, also known as ERISA. Litigation under ERISA is very different from “normal” bad faith insurance litigation where the insured sues the insurer for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Some of the differences favor the insured, while others favor the insurance company/claims administrator. However, thanks to the California Legislature and recent District Court rulings, one of the insurer’s asserted weapons is longer available.

In an ERISA case, the court reviews the claim decision by applying one of two different standards of review: the abuse of discretion standard of reviewor de novo review. Under the abuse of discretion standard of review, the Court is required to give some deference to the insurer’s decision. However, under the de novo standard of review, the Court does not give any deference to the insurer’s decision, but rather determines in the first instance if the claimant has adequately established that he or she is disabled under the terms of the Plan. Between these two options, obviously, the abuse of discretion standard of review could be viewed as more favorable to disability insurance companies. (We believe that in practice there is not much difference between them as the abuse of discretion standard of review gives a disability insurance claimant more access to good discovery from the insurer and we believe that if judges are convinced that a claimant is really totally disabled, they will rule in favor of the claimant no matter the standard). However, the abuse of discretion standard is no longer available to insurers in California.

An insurer can only reap the benefits of the abuse of discretion standard of review by pointing to language in the insurance plan/policy in which the insurer is specifically granted the “discretion” to make claim decisions and interpret the plan provisions. Such a provision is referred to the “discretionary clause.” California Insurance Code section 10110.6 has now completely foreclosed the inclusions (and effect) of any discretionary clause contained in an plan/policy with a “renewal date” of 2012 or later.

California Insurance Code section 10110.6 states in the relevant part:

(a) If a policy, contract, certificate, or agreement offered, issued, delivered, or renewed, whether or not in California, that provides or funds life insurance or disability insurance coverage for any California resident contains a provision that reserves discretionary authority to the insurer, or an agent of the insurer, to determine eligibility for benefits or coverage, to interpret the terms of the policy, contract, certificate, or agreement, or to provide standards of interpretation or review that are inconsistent with the laws of this state, that provision is void and unenforceable.

(b) For purposes of this section, “renewed” means continued in force on or after the policy’s anniversary date.

(c) For purposes of this section, the term “discretionary authority” means a policy provision that has the effect of conferring discretion on an insurer or other claim administrator to determine entitlement to benefits or interpret policy language that, in turn, could lead to a deferential standard of review by any reviewing court.

(g) This section is self-executing. If a life insurance or disability insurance policy, contract, certificate, or agreement contains a provision rendered void and unenforceable by this section, the parties to the policy, contract, certificate, or agreement and the courts shall treat that provision as void and unenforceable.

This section, by its own terms, applies to any policy or agreement that provides “disability insurance coverage” to “any California resident” regardless of where it was offered, issued, delivered, or renewed. Thus, when determining whether a subject policy is governed by this section of the California Insurance Code, the only issue is whether the policy was offered, issued, delivered, or renewed on or after January 1, 2012 and before the claim accrued. However, this is typically a minor hurdle for an insured to clear as, for the purposes of section 10110.6, a policy automatically renews every year on the policy’s anniversary date. See Cal. Ins. Code § 10110.6(b) (providing that “renewed” means “continued in force on or after the policy’s anniversary date”). Most Policies renew every year, which means, that as of now, a vast majority of disability insurance policies’ issuance dates (and renewal dates) fall within the relevant time period.

Indeed, numerous recent Court rulings establish that, even if the Policy contains a discretionary clause, per California Insurance Code section 10110.6, that language is unenforceable, and de novo is the proper standard of review. See Polnicky v. Liberty Life Assur. Co. Of Boston, 999 F. Supp. 2d 1144, 1148 (N.D. Cal. 2013) (applying de novo standard of review to ERISA claim for denial of benefits because “[t]he Policy was continued in force after its January 1, 2012 anniversary date, [so] any provision in the Policy attempting to confer discretionary authority to Liberty Life was rendered void and unenforceable”); see also Gonda v. The Permanente Med. Grp., Inc., 10 F. Supp. 3d 1091, 1093-1094 (N.D. Cal. 2014); Cerone v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., 9 F. Supp. 3d 1145 (S.D. Cal. 2014); Curran v. United of Omaha Life Ins. Co., 38 F. Supp. 3d 1184 (S.D. Cal. 2014); Rapolla v. Waste Mgmt. Employee Benefits Plan, 2014U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87256, 2014 WL 2918863 (N.D. Cal. June 25, 2014); Snyder v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Amer., 2014 WL 7734715 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 28, 2014); Jahn-Derian v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28652, 2015 WL 900717 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 3, 2015).

Given these rulings, it appears that the abuse of discretion standard of review is now, more than three years after the effective date of the statute, dead in ERISA cases that are filed in Federal Courts in California.

If your claim for short-term disability insurance or long-term disability insurance has been denied, you can call (949) 387-9595 for a free consultation with the attorneys of the McKennon Law Group, several of whom previously represented insurance companies, who are exceptionally experienced in handling ERISA short-term and long-term disability insurance litigation.

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Court Confirms that Medication Side Effects Can Support a Disability Insurance Claim

Posted in: De Novo Review, Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, ERISA, Insurance Blog June 29, 2015

When a person suffers from a disability caused by an injury or sickness, the resulting restrictions and limitations, be they physical or mental, can have a devastating impact on that person’s ability to return to work. What is often overlooked, is that the side effects of the medication prescribed to treat a medical condition can themselves also impede a person’s ability to perform in the work place, thus resulting in a long-term disability. Recently, Central District of California Federal Court Judge Percy Anderson, in Hertan v. Unum Life Insurance Company of America, 2015 WL 363244 (C.D. Cal. June 9, 2015), ruled that a long-term disability insurer had to consider how the side effects of an insured’s medication impacted her cognitive abilities, and therefore, her ability to perform her job.

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For ERISA Disability Insurance Appeals, A Claimant Who is a Day Late May Not Be a Dollar Short

Posted in: Case Updates, Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, ERISA, Insurance Blog, Insurance Questions and Concepts, Policy Interpretation June 10, 2015

Under most long-term disability insurance plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), a claimant must appeal the denial of any claim for benefits within 180 days of the denial letter. Unless the appeal is made within that strict 180-day period, the claimant may forfeit the right to any short-term disability benefits or long-term disability benefits available under the plan. At least, that was the law until a recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cracked open the window for a timely appeal.

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Insurers Do No Have Discretionary Authority, Absent Clear Language in Official Plan Documents

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Administrative Record, Case Updates, De Novo Review, Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, ERISA, Insurance Blog, Insurance Questions and Concepts, Policy Interpretation, Standard of Review April 30, 2015

In actions brought under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), two roads diverge in federal court—and the court’s choice regarding the applicable standard of review can make all the difference in the scope of permissible evidence.  If the court applies the abuse of discretion standard of review, the court more typically (but not always) only considers evidence received by the insurer in time for its decision and limits its review to the “administrative record” to determine whether the insurer’s denial was an abuse of discretion.  Alternatively, the court may review a case “de novo,” and may consider documents not previously provided to the insurer to determine whether the insured is entitled to benefits. 

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Ninth Circuit Affirms MLG’s Six-Figure Judgment in a Disability Suit Filed Against Sun Life

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Administrative Record, Case Updates, Conflict of Interest, Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, ERISA, Insurance Blog April 29, 2015

On April 22, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision affirming the district court’s decision to award McKennon Law Group PC’s client, an attorney (“insured”), his past-due ERISA plan benefits, as well as attorneys’ fees, costs and interest against Sun Life & Health Insurance Company in connection with his short-term and long-term disability insurance claim. 

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Multi-Million Dollar Disgorgement Award Struck Down in Rochow - But the Disgorgement Remedy May Still Be Alive

Posted in: Case Updates, Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, Equitable Relief, ERISA, Fiduciary Duty, Insurance Blog March 31, 2015

In December 2013, we published an article highlighting the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ bold decision to award the plaintiff disability benefits plus $2.8 million in disgorged earnings, as a potential “game-changer” in Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) litigation—that is, if it survived review.  Rochow v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 737 F.3d 415 (6th Cir. 2013) (“Rochow I”).  Alas, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision in February 2014 and stayed the case.  Rochow v. Life Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 3158 (6th Cir. Feb. 19, 2014) (“Rochow II”).  Finally, in March 2015, the Court of Appeals issued an en banc decision vacating the disgorgement award and remanding the case for a review of prejudgment interest.  Rochow v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 3532 (6th Cir. 2015) (“Rochow III”).  The Court held that because the plaintiff was adequately compensated by an award of the insurance benefits, attorneys’ fees and possible prejudgment interest, that in this case, disgorgement was not necessary to make the plaintiff whole.  Although this decision is disheartening to claimant’s attorneys eager to test the limits of ERISA remedies, a careful reading of Rochow III reveals that the Sixth Circuit does not entirely foreclose disgorgement as an appropriate remedy under ERISA.  Moreover, the concurring and dissenting opinions provide additional guidance for future ERISA claimants who suffer injuries and seek equitable remedies beyond their policy benefits.

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Employees Must Follow ERISA Plan Documents in Designating Retirement Plan Beneficiaries or Risk Losing Critical Rights

Posted in: Case Updates, De Novo Review, ERISA February 09, 2015

Have you properly designated your intended beneficiaries for your retirement plan at work?  What about for your savings plan, life insurance policy or other employee benefit plans you have through your employer?  If you have not, the impact could be dire and life-changing for your loved ones after you pass.  Make sure you follow the law so your family is properly taken care of when the inevitable happens.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal recently addressed these issues in Becker v. Williams, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 1554 (9th Cir. Jan. 28, 2015). There, a 30 year employee of Xerox Corporation died in 2011, Asa Williams, Sr.  Because Asa, Sr. did not follow through in changing his intended beneficiary with a written form after his telephone request to his employer, his son and ex-wife were left fighting each other over his retirement proceeds.  The Court framed the issue as:

We must decide whether a decedent succeeded in his attempt to ensure that his son—and not his ex-wife—received the benefits to which his employer’s retirement plans entitled him.

Before his retirement, Asa, Sr. participated in Xerox’s retirement and savings plan (“Retirement Plans”).  The Retirement Plans were subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001 et seq. (as are most employer sponsored employee benefit plans such as life insurance policies and disability insurance policies).

Asa, Sr. married Carmen Mays Williams and formally designated her as his beneficiary on his Retirement Plans.  After their divorce, Asa, Sr. changed his designated beneficiary from his ex-wife to his son, Asa, Jr., by telephoning Xerox and instructing it to make the change three different times.  Each time, following his phone conversation with Xerox, Asa, Sr. received, but did not sign and return, the beneficiary designation forms Xerox gave him to confirm the change.

After Asa, Sr. died, Carmen immediately wrote Xerox and claimed to be the beneficiary under the Retirement Plans.  Asa, Jr. asserted the same claim.  Rather than decide the family squabble, Xerox filed an interpleader action in federal district court and interpleaded the retirement proceeds.

Carmen moved for summary judgment, asserting that because Asa, Sr. failed to fill out and return the beneficiary designation forms, he did not properly designate Asa, Jr. as beneficiary in her place.  Asa, Jr. argued that his father calling Xerox on the telephone and changing the beneficiary to himself from Carmen was enough.  The district court sided with the ex-wife and granted her motion, despite that Asa, Sr. apparently intended his son to receive his retirement benefits.  It reasoned the beneficiary forms were “plan documents” under ERISA and, therefore, Asa, Sr. was required to follow their instructions to legally complete the beneficiary change (they had language requiring the employee to sign and return the forms to validate a beneficiary change).

Asa, Jr. appealed.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the beneficiary designation forms were not “plan documents” under ERISA.  Relying on another case that addressed a slightly different ERISA issue, Hughes Salaried Retirees Action Comm. v. Adm’r of the Hughes Non-Bargaining Ret. Plan, 72 F.3d 686 (9th Cir. 1995), the Court of Appeal found the beneficiary designation forms were not plan documents because:

only those [documents] that provide information as to where [the participant] stands with respect to the plan, such as [a] [summary plan description] or trust agreement might, could qualify as governing documents with which a plan administrator must comply in awarding benefits under [ERISA].

The Court of Appeal reasoned because an ERISA plan administrator must distribute employee benefits in accordance with the governing “plan documents,” Xerox was not required to follow the instructions on the beneficiary designation forms when distributing Asa, Sr.’s retirement proceeds.  Instead, Xerox was required to follow the requirements of the plan documents, including the Retirement Plans’ Agreement and Summary Plan Description.  Those documents permitted an unmarried employee like Asa, Sr. to change his beneficiary over the telephone simply by calling the Xerox Benefits Center.  The plan documents did not require a written form.  The Court of Appeal thus found the district court erred in determining that Asa, Sr. was required to abide by the language in the forms – but not in the governing plan documents – to change his beneficiary designation from Carmen to Asa, Jr.

The Court next addressed the issue of whether the evidence showed Asa, Sr. actually changed his beneficiary to Asa, Jr. in accordance with the plan documents.  It held that, based on Xerox’s call logs which showed Asa, Sr. called Xerox to change his beneficiary from Carmen to Asa, Jr., a reasonable jury could find he intended to make the change and that his phone calls substantially complied with the plan documents.  The Court therefore found summary judgment in Carmen’s favor was inappropriate.  It reversed and remanded to the district court for a trial in accordance with the rules espoused in its opinion on the issue of Asa, Sr.’s intent.

The Court addressed one final matter, the proper standard of review.  The issue was whether it should defer to the Retirement Plan administrator’s decisions in the matter or, instead, should decide “de novo” if Carmen or Asa, Jr. should receive the retirement benefits.  It held that because the Retirement Plan administrator did not exercise any discretion in deciding whether Asa, Sr. telephonically designating his son was valid under the Plans, it must decide the case de novo.  Stated another way, the Court found there was no discretion exercised by the Plan administrator to which it could defer.

It looks like this case will turn out fine for now deceased Asa, Sr. and his son, albeit at great expense and aggravation to Asa Jr.  But it teaches an important lesson to employees with employer sponsored retirement plans, life insurance policies and disability policies.  Make sure you carefully follow the plan documents whenever effectuating your rights.  The consequence of being careless could cost you or your family hard earned employee benefits.

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Standing Spine(dex) Adjustment – Ninth Circuit Finds Healthcare Providers Have Article III Standing in Denial of Benefit Claims Under ERISA

Posted in: Case Updates, ERISA, Fiduciary Duty, Standing January 13, 2015

A universal part of the American medical experience is paperwork. Everyone is familiar with visiting a healthcare provider for the first time, filling out history forms and signing pages of documents that they either do not understand or do not care about. The Ninth Circuit recently grappled with a minimally explored legal issue surrounding one such document: whether a non-participant healthcare provider, as assignee of health plan beneficiaries under an assignment form, has Article III standing to bring a denial of benefits claim under ERISA.

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"Expanding equitable remedies in ERISA cases:" Robert J. McKennon and Scott Calvert Publish Article in Los Angeles Daily Journal

Posted in: Equitable Relief, ERISA January 10, 2015

The January 8, 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal featured Robert McKennon and Scott Calvert’s article entitled:  “Expanding Equitable Remedies in ERISA Cases.”  In it, Mr. McKennon and Mr. Calvert discuss a new case, Gabriel v. Alaska Electrical Pension Fund, 2014 DJDAR 16590 (9th Cir. 2014) and also discuss equitable remedies generally in ERISA cases and, in particular, how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has joined other circuits in allowing certain equitable remedies, most especially the surcharge remedy.  Mr. McKennon and Mr. Calvert also explain how insurance claimants should go about proving equitable remedies.  The article is posted below with the permission of the Daily Journal.

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Ruling Limits Insurance Company’s Ability to Collect SSDI Overpayments

Posted in: Case Updates, Disability Insurance, Disability Insurance News, ERISA, Insurance Blog January 08, 2015

When and under what circumstances an insurer paying long-term disability benefits may collect retroactive benefits paid to an ERISA plan participant under the Social Security Act has been the source of conflicting opinions over the years.   The most recent pronouncement:  a long-term disability plan administrators must “specifically identify a particular fund” from which it will be reimbursed in order to seek to recover of alleged overpayment of disability benefits.  So held the Southern District of California in its recent plaintiff-friendly decision in Wong v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135661 (S.D. Cal. 2014).  Through its decision in Wong, the district court reaffirmed that simply because an ERISA governed long-term disability plan’s language provides for recovery of an award of back-dated SSDI benefits does not mean that an insurance company may seek reimbursement from an insured’s general assets.  Instead, the onus is on the insurer to specifically identify specific funds, separate from a plan participant’s general assets, on which it may place an attachment.

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