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…

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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, ERISA 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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Ninth Circuit Expands the Availability of Equitable Remedies in ERISA Cases, Approving Surcharge as a Viable Remedy

Posted in: Case Updates, Equitable Relief, ERISA December 24, 2014

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Russell, 473 U.S. 134 (1985), the courts have grappled with the issue of the extent to which equitable remedies are available under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  One of the most interesting and beneficial for plan participants is the issue of the equitable remedy of surcharge under ERISA.  Recently, the Ninth Circuit withdrew an earlier decision regarding the availability of the equitable remedy of surcharge in ERISA, and issued a new ruling consistent with the holdings of other Circuit courts.  The new ruling, Gabriel v. Alaska Electrical Pension Fund, 2014 DJDAR 16590 (9th Cir. 2014), is much more favorable to ERISA claimants and makes clear that surcharge, a form of equitable relief, is available to ERISA claimants under 29 U.S.C. section 1132(a)(3).  Further, the Court also set forth the requirements that a claimant must meet to qualify for other forms of equitable relief, including equitable estoppel and reformation. The specific facts of the Gabriel matter are unimportant, and ultimately the Ninth Circuit ruled that the district court was correct in holding that the plaintiff was not entitled to the payment of the pension funds that he…

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Too Little Time – Court Finds ERISA Plan’s Contractual Limitation Period Unreasonably Short and Unenforceable

Posted in: Case Updates, Disability Insurance, ERISA, Statute of Limitations November 04, 2014

One hundred days is not a reasonable amount of time to give a plan participant to file a lawsuit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”).  This was the conclusion reached by the United States District Court Southern District of California in its recent decision in Nelson v. Standard Insurance Company, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119179 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 26, 2014), which held that a contractual limitation contained in an ERISA-governed group long-term disability policy’s limitation period is unreasonable and unenforceable because the time period may have ran prior to the end of the administrative review process and because it provided the plan participant only one hundred days to file an action in federal court.  The holding in Nelson was one of the first in the Ninth Circuit to determine, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co., 134 S. Ct. 604 (2013), that a plan’s contractual limitation on filing a lawsuit is unreasonably short.  While numerous questions still remain as to what constitutes an unreasonable plan limitations period, the Nelson decision makes it clear that, at the very least, providing a plan participant only one hundred days…

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Third-Party ERISA Administrator Abused Discretion by Denying Medical Coverage: A Tale of What Not to Do

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Administrative Record, Conflict of Interest, ERISA, Fiduciary Duty, Health Insurance, Standard of Review September 16, 2014

Sometimes an administrator so unashamedly abuses its discretion in handling an insurance claim that its actions constitute a textbook example of “what not to do” for other administrators and the ensuing decision provides a clear illustration of how courts apply an abuse of discretion standard of review under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  Indeed, a recent case clarified that plan administrators and third-party claims administrators alike are held to comparable standards when issuing claims decisions.  In Pacific Shores Hospital v. United Behavioral Health, 2014 WL 4086784; 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 16062 (9th Cir. Cal. Aug. 20, 2014) (“Pacific Shores”) the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the district court, finding the third-party administrator acted improperly by denying the insured’s claim based on clear factual errors.  Pacific Shores provides a clear example of how courts review a decision for an abuse of discretion, and shows that even third-party administrators, who purportedly have no conflict of interest with the insured, are still held to have the same duties in handling claims and must follow appropriate procedures.

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Recent Federal Court Decisions Give Teeth to California’s Ban on Discretionary Clauses in ERISA Plans

Posted in: Case Updates, Disability Insurance, ERISA August 28, 2014

A virtually insurmountable concrete wall was once an apt analogy for the effect of discretionary clauses in ERISA Plans on claimants attempting to challenge a plan administrator’s unreasonable interpretation of policy terms.  A valid discretionary clause gave insurance companies power to construe the terms of ERISA- governed group insurance policies based on their own interpretation, which could only be overturned by courts if it were “illogical, implausible or without support in inferences drawn from the facts in the record.”  Salomaa v. Honda Long Term Disability Plan, 642 F.3d 666 (2011).  In order to counteract the discretion these clauses provided to plan administrators/insurers, California enacted Insurance Code section 10110.6, which placed a ban on such discretionary clauses.  After the enactment of this new statute, questions regarding how courts would interpret and enforce it lingered.  However, recent decisions in California strongly suggests that courts will give full force to the California statute and apply de novo review of claim denials rather than the abuse of discretion standard to claims denied on or after January 1, 2012.

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Echague v. Met Life: Equitable Surcharge is an Available Remedy Against Unresponsive Plan Administrators Under ERISA

Posted in: Case Updates, Equitable Relief, ERISA, Life Insurance June 26, 2014

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) seeks to protect participants in employer-sponsored plans, but lack of adequate communication and transparency is an often an unfortunate byproduct of the insurance industry.  The California district court shed light on this issue in Echague v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68642 (N.D. Cal. May 19, 2014) by holding an insurer breaches its fiduciary duty when providing insufficient responses and the insured may be entitled to equitable surcharge.  Echague is highly beneficial to insureds and beneficiaries, as it warns plan fiduciaries (such as insurers and plan administrators/employers) to think twice before ignoring requests for information, giving incorrect information, or neglecting to provide updates regarding the policies they administer, as their inactions or providing of incorrect information about the plan may open them up to equitable remedies such as equitable surcharge which would allow plan participants to recover the full value of the plan benefits in dispute. 

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A Pro-Insurer Decision Provides Guidance for Insureds on the Application of Estoppel and Waiver to Statute of Limitations Defenses in Disability Insurance ERISA Cases

Posted in: Case Updates, Disability Insurance, ERISA, Statute of Limitations April 24, 2014

At times, decisions that appear favorable to insurers can also have unexpectedly positive take-aways for policy holders.  Gordon v. Deloitte & Touche, __ F.3d ___, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 6688 (9th Cir. April 11, 2014) is just such a case.  Although, the Ninth Circuit in Gordon ruled in favor of the insurer in finding that the insured’s ERISA action was barred by the California four-year statute of limitations, the Court also reaffirmed and clarified the standards for evoking waiver and estoppel arguments to prevent insurance companies from raising a statute of limitations or contractual limitations defense.

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