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

Posted in: Case Updates, 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, 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 sought because his rights to those funds never vested.  The Ninth Circuit also remanded one aspect of the case to the District Court, but virtually instructed the lower court to deny that claim as well.  However, the ruling is important because, by making the equitable remedy of surcharge available to ERISA claimants, the Ninth Circuit aligned itself with the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits in expanding the rights of ERISA claimants.

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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 within which to file a complaint in federal court is not reasonable.

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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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