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.
McKennon Law Group Wins Disability Insurance Lawsuit Against Sun Life And Health Insurance Company Following TrialDecember 11, 2012 Scott Calvert
On November 27, 2012, following a trial before Judge Cormac J. Carney of the United States Federal District Court for the Central District of California, Robert J. McKennon and Scott E. Calvert of the McKennon Law Group secured a victory for their client in a lawsuit against Sun Life and Health Insurance Company. Representing the claimant, Mr. Evans, the McKennon Law Group convinced the District Court that Sun Life abused its discretion in denying Mr. Evans’ claim for long-term disability benefits and that Mr. Evans is entitled to receive his disability benefits that Sun Life denied him.
Under ERISA, Communications with In-House Counsel Before a Final Claims Decision are Not Privileged and are Subject to Discovery to Show a Conflict of InterestSeptember 20, 2012 Scott Calvert
Are insureds entitled to communications between an insurance company’s in-house counsel and the claims handlers that might otherwise be protected by the attorney-client privilege? Following a new ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, if the claimant is insured under an ERISA plan, the answer might be “yes.”
For decades, courts, including the Ninth Circuit, have recognized a “fiduciary exception” to the attorney-client privilege in the context of ERISA. Courts have required production of legal advice given to plan fiduciaries when they are acting as fiduciaries for the benefit of the beneficiaries. This “fiduciary exception” has however been subject to exceptions.
Terrance Burnett was eligible for short-term disability (“STD”) benefits and long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits through employee welfare benefit plans funded by his employer, The Raytheon Company, and administered by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”). After his doctors stated that Burnett’s psychiatric condition prevented him from performing his job duties, he filed a claim for STD benefits. While, MetLife denied his claim for STD benefits, in Burnett v. Raytheon Co. Short Term Disability Basic Benefit Plan, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40725 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 14, 2011), Judge Dolly Gee ruled that MetLife abused its discretion when it denied Burnett’s claim, and awarded him the STD benefits he sought. In addition, the court held that Burnett was eligible for some LTD benefits, even though he had yet to file an LTD claim.
In ruling that the medical records supported Burnett’s claim, the court Gee criticized the findings of MetLife’s so-called “independent” expert Dr. Mark Schroeder, a psychiatrist. Specifically, the court determined that “Dr. Schroeder arbitrarily discounted the opinion of Dr. Friedman, the treating physician whom Burnett saw weekly, and distorted the importance of the progress reports submitted by Dr. Anderson. Further, the court held that Dr. Schroeder “overemphasized the significance of Dr. Anderson’s February 20 and March 19 progress reports to the exclusion of the overwhelming weight of the evidence in the record, including the characteristics of the job that Burnett previously occupied and the corroborating results of the MMPI-2.”
Overall, the court classified Dr. Schroeder’s findings as “unreasonable” and awarded Burnett “STD benefits for the maximum 10-week period—from February 15 through April 25—because the evidence clearly shows that Burnett qualified as fully disabled during that time period.”
Recently, in Montour v. Harford Life & Accident, 582 F.3d 933 (9th Cir. 2009), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in one of its most important cases, adopted a new standard of reviewing ERISA abuse of discretion cases where the insurer has a conflict of interest. The court held that a “modicum of evidence in the record supporting the administrator’s decision will not alone suffice in the face of such a conflict, since this more traditional application of the abuse of discretion standard allowed no room for weighing the extent to which the administrator’s decision may have been motivated by improper considerations.” Further, the court in Montour explained that a reviewing court must also take into account the administrator’s conflict of interest as a factor in the abuse of discretion analysis. This was significant because the appeals court gave a comprehensive description of the “signs of bias” it found were exhibited by Hartford throughout the decision-making process. These included overstatement of and excessive reliance upon Montour’s activities in the surveillance videos; Hartford’s decision to conduct a paper review rather than an “in-person medical evaluation;” Hartford’s insistence that Montour produce objective proof of his pain level; and Hartford’s failure to deal with and distinguish the Social Security Administration’s contrary disability decision. The appeals court also noted Hartford’s “failure to present extrinsic evidence of any effort on its part to ‘assure accurate claims assessment.’”
Sacks v. Standard Ins. Co., __ F. Supp. 2d __, 2009 WL 4307558 (C.D. Cal. 2009) is one of the first cases to address the abuse of discretion standard of review since the Ninth Circuit’s important decision in Montour. In Sacks, the claimant was a mortgage underwriter for Countrywide Home Loans. Standard Insurance Company (“Standard”) was the claims administrator and insurer for the Countrywide Home Loans Long Term Disability Plan (the “Plan”). After her claim for long-term disability benefits was denied, the claimant sued Standard Insurance in federal courts for benefits under the ERISA.
The court recognized that the Plan granted Standard with discretionary authority. However, since Standard provided the funds and made the decision concerning benefits, it operated under a structural conflict of interest. At issue was how to apply the standard of review in light of the conflict of interest and the recent Ninth Circuit opinion in Montour. Here, the court recognized that the “abuse of discretion” standard of review does not change just because there is a conflict of interest. Instead, the factual circumstances surrounding the conflict of interest is a factor providing weight in the overall analysis of whether an abuse of discretion occurred. As a result, the court in Sacks gave greater weight to the conflict of interest for a variety of reasons including because Standard used an erroneous occupation criteria to evaluate Plaintiff’s claim, failed to consider the effects of the claimant’s medication on her ability to perform her own occupation, and failed to adequately investigate the claim. In addition, the court highlighted the fact that Standard failed to conduct follow-up testing as recommended by the IME physician and instead merely accepted the part of the physician’s conclusion that supported its claims decision. These actions, the court found, warranted greater skepticism of Standard’s claims decision. Accordingly, the court found that Standard had abused its discretion and reversed the claim decision by awarding the plaintiff benefits.
Expect to see more district courts to focus their analysis on these and other self-interest factors as they assess how much weight to give to an insurer’s conflict of interest. Also expect to see more district courts applying the Montour analysis to find that administrators have acted in a manner that evidences their self-interest and to award more ERISA participants their benefits under insured benefit plans.
The Ninth Circuit recently addressed, for the first time, whether the standard of review analysis for “top hat” ERISA plans is the same as for other ERISA plans. In Sznewajs v. U.S. Bancorp Amended and Restated Supplemental Benefits Plan, 572 F.3d 727 (9th Cir. 2009), Franciene Sznewajs, the ex-wife of co-defendant Robert Sznewajs, challenged the Plan’s decision to treat Robert Sznewajs’ second wife, Virginia Sznewajs, as his surviving beneficiary. The Plan Administrator denied Franciene’s claim for benefits because it interpreted Robert’s “retirement” to have occurred when Robert started collecting benefits. Franciene argued that “retirement” meant the date of Robert’s termination of employment. The issues on appeal were the appropriate standard of review and the definition of retirement under the Plan.
The employee benefit plan in this case is known as a “top hat” plan. ERISA “defines a top hat plan as one which is unfunded and is maintained by an employer primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees.” Sznewajs at *4. Because of the specialized nature of “top hat” plans, Congress exempts such plans from certain ERISA regulations. Gilliam v. Nevada Power Co., 488 F.3d 1189, 1192-93 (9th Cir. 2007).
In most ERISA cases, the administrator’s claim decision is reviewed under the de novo standard of review unless the plan documents grant the administrator discretionary authority. Here, Franciene argued that, despite the discretion granted to the plan administrator, the district court should utilize the de novo standard of review because payments made to beneficiaries come directly from the company’s pockets and those payment decisions are made by the company’s executive committee. Franciene’s argument was consistent with holdings in the Third and Eighth Circuits, both of which have ruled that “top hat” plans are subject to a de novo standard of review despite the existence of a grant of discretionary authority for the very same reasons. However, the Ninth Circuit disagreed, explaining that applying a de novo standard of review to “top hat” plans “would create unnecessary confusion.” Therefore, in the Ninth Circuit, “top hat” plans are subject to the same standard of review analysis as other ERISA plans.
Finally, in making this ruling, the court found that the Plan did not abuse its discretion in its interpretation of the term “retirement.”
Ninth Circuit Clarifies Application of Abuse of Discretion Review When Insurer Has a Conflict of InterestJanuary 14, 2010 Robert McKennon
After the United States Supreme Court decided MetLife Ins. Co. v. Glenn in which the Court held that a reviewing court must consider the conflict of interest arising from the dual role of an insurer acting as a plan administrator and payor of plan benefits as a factor in determining whether the insurer abused its discretion in denying benefits, several courts have struggled with this standard. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified how courts within the Ninth Circuit will apply this standard in Montour v. Hartford Life & Accident, 582 F.3d 933 (9th Cir. 2009). In Montour, the court adopted a new standard of reviewing ERISA abuse of discretion cases where the insurer has a conflict of interest. The court held that a “modicum of evidence in the record supporting the administrator’s decision will not alone suffice in the face of such a conflict, since this more traditional application of the abuse of discretion standard allowed no room for weighing the extent to which the administrator’s decision may have been motivated by improper considerations.”
Robert Montour was a telecommunications manager for Conexant Systems, Inc. His employer provided him with a group long-term disability plan governed by ERISA. Hartford was both the insurer and claims administrator of the plan. The plan granted Hartford discretionary authority to interpret plan terms and to determine eligibility for benefits.
Montour applied for and received disability benefits, initially for an acute stress disorder, in 2003. In 2004, Montour consulted an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Kenneth Kengla, about knee and back pain and subsequently underwent surgery. Dr. Kengla diagnosed Montour with degenerative changes in both areas and notified Hartford that Montour was suffering from physical disability which prevented him from returning to the labor force. Dr. Kengla listed numerous restrictions on Montour’s physical activities.
In November and December 2005 Hartford conducted surveillance on Montour over the course of four days. Video footage from this surveillance depicted Montour driving his car along with other activities. Shortly thereafter, a Hartford investigator conducted a personal interview with Montour at his home, during which Montour listed a “bad back, [an] arthritic right knee, and sleep apnea” as the “disabling medical condition(s)” preventing him from returning to work. He also described an inability to concentrate, which he attributed to the medication he must take to treat his “constant pain.” Montour acknowledged that the surveillance video footage accurately depicted his level of functionality.
In May 2006 a Hartford nurse case manager submitted a letter to Dr. Kengla indicating that Montour was capable of performing “sedentary to light” work and soliciting their agreement. Dr. Kengla indicated that he disagreed with Hartford’s conclusions, citing Montour’s persistent orthopedic symptoms and physical restrictions.
In July 2006 Hartford hired a consulting physician, Dr. Gale Brown, to conduct a file review. Dr. Brown concluded that medical evidence supported the existence of a lower back condition but that Dr. Kengla’s offered restrictions were excessive. He acknowledged that the medical evidence supported Montour’s chronic pain but found that Montour was nevertheless capable of working full-time with modest restrictions, such as changing positions every thirty to forty-five minutes.
After Hartford enlisted a vocational rehabilitation expert to compile an Employability Analysis Report which concluded that Montour was capable of working in a high-level managerial capacity in five different fields, in August 2006 Hartford denied his claim. Montour appealed this decision and included a vocational appraisal report which concluded that Montour was “not employable in any setting” and that Hartford’s decision was based on numerous mistakes, including a disregard for the fact that the Social Security Administration (SSA) considered Montour to be “totally disabled.”
In response, Hartford hired a physician to conduct a second file review. The physician reviewed Montour’s records for evidence of a physical condition that would preclude sedentary work and, like Dr. Brown, found none. He noted in particular a lack of objective, clinical data demonstrating the extent to which Montour’s pain impacted his functionality. He also noted that Montour’s activities depicted on the surveillance videos exceeded the activity requirements of a “sedentary” job.
In light of concerns raised in the vocational appraisal report, Hartford requested a vocational specialist to conduct an Employability Analysis Report addendum, which reached the same conclusion as the initial Employability Analysis Report regarding the sedentary nature and thus the feasibility of the five proposed managerial positions. In February 2007, a Hartford appeal specialist affirmed the company’s previous decision to terminate Montour’s benefits. In a bench trial, the district court rendered its decision in favor of Hartford, upholding its denial.
In reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit first explained that when an ERISA plan grants the administrator discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan, the court reviews the decision for abuse of discretion. The court agreed with the district court that the abuse of discretion standard applied and that Hartford had a conflict of interest. However, the appeals court criticized the district court’s application of the “clear error” test, explaining that a reviewing court must also take into account the administrator’s conflict of interest as a factor in the abuse of discretion analysis. The appeals court concluded that the district court’s decision did not adequately balance the conflict factors. Accordingly, the appeals court proceeded to do so.
The appeals court gave a comprehensive description of the “signs of bias” it found were exhibited by Hartford throughout the decision-making process. These included overstatement of and excessive reliance upon Montour’s activities in the surveillance videos Hartford’s decision to conduct a paper review rather than an “in-person medical evaluation;” Hartford’s insistence that Montour produce objective proof of his pain level; and Hartford’s failure to deal with and distinguish the Social Security Administration’s contrary disability decision. The appeals court also noted Hartford’s “failure to present extrinsic evidence of any effort on its part to ‘assure accurate claims assessment.’”
The appeals court concluded that Hartford’s bias had infiltrated the entire administrative decision-making process, leading the court to accord significant weight to the conflict of interest. Weighing all of the factors together, the court concluded that Hartford’s conflict of interest improperly motivated its decision to terminate Montour’s benefits. The court reversed and remanded the matter for entry of judgment in favor of Montour and for reinstatement of long-term disability benefits.