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.
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.
Third-Party ERISA Administrator Abused Discretion by Denying Medical Coverage: A Tale of What Not to DoSeptember 16, 2014 Iris Chou
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.
It will not be surprising to many readers of this blog that insurance companies often deny life insurance, health insurance and disability insurance claims. Many times, insurance companies are wrong in their decisions. And, sometimes they acknowledge their mistakes. The question becomes: what are the odds of an insurance company changing its mind and reversing the decision? Our firm knows firsthand that the odds are extremely good when a reputable and respected law firm is involved in representing the policyholder’s interests. But that is just our experience. What is the overall experience when a health insurance claim is denied and a subsequent appeal is filed? We now have our answer.
In his article entitled “Don’t take a health insurer’s rejection as the final word on your medical claim,” Tom Murphy of the Associated Press cites a recent report from the Government Accountability Office which found that overall, appeals have an approximately 50% success rate. The article lists a number of actions policyholders can take to increase the likelihood of success on appeal. Murphy mentions obtaining and submitting copies of the entire medical file, enlisting a treating doctor to write letters explaining the policyholder’s relevant medical history, understanding policy language, writing a detailed letter with supporting records and information and complying with all deadlines.
For most insurance litigation, the majority of the evidence used by both sides comes from the claim file, also known as the administrative record in ERISA cases. The claim file represents the insurance carrier’s written record of its handling and processing of an insurance claim. Obviously, this information is highly relevant whenever coverage or a claim is disputed. Moreover, in the case of life, health, or disability insurance cases, the claim file will also be full of personal and confidential information such as medical records and social security numbers.
One of the most interesting questions in ERISA litigation is: What constitutes the administrative record for purposes of determining whether the administrator abused its discretion in making a claim determination? Bartholomew v. Unum Life Ins. Co., 579 F. Supp. 2d 1339 (W.D. Wash. 2008) helped answer this question.
Plaintiff, who sued to recover benefits under her long-term disability (LTD) plan, sought to expand the scope of discovery under ERISA by seeking documents outside the Administrative Record. Among others, the Plaintiff requested; “Details of compensation and financial incentives,” “revenue and profitability reports for the last 10 years,” and “[a]ny document discussing the claims handling process published during the last 10 years.” Despite the recent rulings in Abatie allowing weight to be given to structural conflict of interest analysis, the District Court held that Plaintiff was not allowed to engage in a fishing expedition. Here, the discovery requests were not narrowly tailored to lead to discovery of admissible evidence. Therefore, Plaintiff’s request for discovery outside the statutory guidelines was appropriately denied.