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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McKennon Law Group Wins Disability Insurance Lawsuit Against Sun Life And Health Insurance Company Following Trial

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Conflict of Interest, Disability Insurance, ERISA, News, Standard of Review December 11, 2012

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.

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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 Interest

Posted in: Conflict of Interest, Disability Insurance, ERISA September 20, 2012

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.

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Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies Under ERISA Not Required If Exhaustion Would Have Been Futile

Posted in: Conflict of Interest, Disability Insurance, ERISA April 27, 2011

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….

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District Court Applies Abuse of Discretion Standard of Review After Montour

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Case Updates, Conflict of Interest, ERISA, News, Standard of Review January 14, 2010

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…

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"Top Hat" ERISA Plans Are Not Entitled To Special Treatment

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Case Updates, Conflict of Interest, Disability Insurance, ERISA, News January 14, 2010

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…

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Ninth Circuit Clarifies Application of Abuse of Discretion Review When Insurer Has a Conflict of Interest

Posted in: Abuse of Discretion, Case Updates, Conflict of Interest, Disability Insurance, ERISA, News January 14, 2010

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…

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