Ninth Circuit Confirms ERISA Plans Cannot Assert New Rationales for Denying Benefits After They Get Sued

I’ve previously blogged about cases in which insurers were limited from raising new reasons to deny coverage after the fact. Whether an insurer can do so is a complex question that depends on the facts of the specific case. It also depends on what law applies. A recent ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirms that, if ERISA applies, the rule is clear: ERISA-governed benefit plans cannot raise new reasons for denying benefits after they get sued.

In Beverly Oaks v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield, doctors at the Beverly Oaks clinic sued Blue Cross & Blue Shield (BCBS) claiming that BCBS should have paid for the treatment of certain patients of the clinic who had health insurance coverage from BCBS under their ERISA plans. The doctors relied on agreements the patients signed promising that the doctors could sue the insurance plan directly to pay their treatment bills. These agreements are known as an “assignment of benefits.’

No one disputed that the ERISA plans at issue banned the patients from signing the “assignment of benefits” forms. The plan documents repeatedly stated that benefits could not be assigned to third parties like the doctors.

But BCBS failed to invoke the assignment ban in response to the doctors’ claims. Instead, BCBS processed the claims on the merits, mostly denying them for reasons unrelated to the assignment of benefits. At the end of the day, BCBS paid the doctors only $130,000 out of $1.4 million in medical bills.

BCBS raised the ban on assigning benefits only after the doctors filed a lawsuit under ERISA seeking to overturn BCBS’ denial of the claims on the merits. BCBS told the federal District Court that the doctors had no right to sue on behalf of their patients because the assignment of benefits agreements were not allowed under the terms of the ERISA plans. The District Court agreed and dismissed the case.

But the Ninth Circuit reversed and allowed the doctors’ suit to proceed. That court emphasized that ERISA requires employee benefit plans (including their agents like BCBS) to state all of the reasons for denying a claim in the first instance. Allowing plan administrators to keep arguments for denying claims in their proverbial “back pockets” until litigation invites abuses and cuts against claimants’ right to respond to the basis for any claim denials:

“ERISA and its implementing regulations are undermined where plan administrators have available sufficient information to assert a basis for denial of benefits, but choose to hold that basis in reserve rather than communicate it to the beneficiary.”

The Court of Appeals also relied on the fact that BCBS representatives repeatedly told the doctors that they could seek reimbursement for medical bills on their patients’ behalf–before the doctors provided treatment–without mentioning the ban on assignments of benefits.

Bicyclists Covered Under Insurance Policies That Cover “Pedestrians” Says Washington Supreme Court

Technical terms in the fine print of an insurance policy are often critical to understanding the insured’s rights. These terms often have definitions that differ from the normal dictionary definition. In one case, for instance, a court ruled that school busses are not automobiles under a particular insurance policy. The recent ruling in McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Insurance Company is such a case.

In McLaughlin, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a bicyclist was a “pedestrian” under McLaughlin’s insurance policy. McLaughlin was riding his bicycle in downtown Seattle when a motorist opened the door of a parked vehicle and hit McLaughlin. McLaughlin made a claim under his Travelers car insurance policy. The policy provided benefits if McLaughlin was struck by a vehicle “as a pedestrian.”

Travelers denied coverage. It argued that McLaughlin was not a “pedestrian” because he was riding his bike. The lower courts agreed with Travelers, relying on the dictionary definition of “pedestrian” as excluding bicyclists.

The Washington State Supreme Court held that McLaughlin had coverage. The court relied on an insurance statute in which the Washington legislature defined a “pedestrian” as any person “not occupying a motor vehicle…” Since McLaughlin was riding a bike and not a motor vehicle when he was injured, he was a “pedestrian”.

The court emphasized that the relevant statutes are read into insurance contracts automatically. Because the legislature has the power to regulate insurance, a valid statute becomes part of the insurance policy. The statutory definition of “pedestrian” therefore became a part of McLaughlin’s insurance policy just as if Travelers had copied the statute into the policy documents.

This conclusion was reinforced by traditional insurance law principles that insurance policy language should be read consistent with the expectations of the average insurance purchaser. The court had no trouble concluding that the average person buying this MedPay coverage would expect to be covered when injured by a car.

Another twist is that the Court applied Washington law even though McLaughlin bought the policy in California. Because he had moved to Washington, the Court determined that he was entitled to all the protections of Washington law. Washington courts have a long history of applying Washington law to any insurance policy protecting a Washington resident.

In sum, the McLaughlin case is a strong reminder that Washington State’s insurance laws and regulations will be enforced regardless of the insurance policy fine print.

WA Appeals Court Confirms Insurers Can’t Make Coverage Denials A Moving Target

Insurers who deny coverage on an unreasonable basis and get sued by their insureds often try to retroactively change their basis for denying coverage. A recent Washington Court of Appeals decision illustrates why this strategy typically fails.

Nathaniel and Jennifer Cummings owned a home in Western Washington that they rented out. The Cummings purchased homeowners insurance for the property from USAA and continued to rent out the property. Because they lived out of state, the Cummings hired a property manager to handle leasing out the property.

In 2017, the Cummings discovered serious damage and an odd smell left behind when the most recent tenants vacated the property. These issues made it harder for the Cummings’ to sell the property. The Cummings suspected the damage was due to tenants producing methamphetamine in the property.

The Cummings made a claim with USAA and advised that they suspected their property manager had failed to effectively handle the tenants. The only investigation USAA performed was obtaining testing confirming methamphetamine residue in the property, but at levels below the Washington State limits for remediation. The Cummings told USAA they wanted to remediate the methamphetamine contamination anyway because even a small amount of contamination would make it harder to sell the property.

USAA denied the claim. The sole reason it gave was that the policy excluded damage from “pollutants.”

The Cummings filed suit and argued the loss was covered under the USAA insurance policy because the tenants’ meth operation was an act of vandalism. USAA defended its decision to deny coverage by raising new arguments not previously disclosed. It claimed the Cummings violated the policy by failing to disclose the tenants’ use of the property and that the methamphetamine contamination levels were too low to count as vandalism. USAA abandoned its initial reason for denying coverage.

The Cummings argued USAA could not raise new grounds for denying coverage in the lawsuit. The trial court agreed with USAA and dismissed the lawsuit. The Cummings appealed.

The Washington Court of Appeals reversed. Siding with the Cummings, the appellate court agreed that USAA could not raise new justifications for denying the claim after the Cummings filed suit.

The court applied the legal principle of equitable estoppel and relied on Washington State regulations requiring that insurers explain their basis for denying a claim. While insurers can modify the basis for denying coverage when they receive new information as part of a reasonable investigation, insurers cannot raise new grounds for denying coverage after the insured shows that the initial basis given for denying coverage is wrong where they could reasonably have given that bases in the original denial.

The Court of Appeals also agreed with the Cummings that the loss was covered under the policy’s vandalism coverages. The court applied the traditional rule that, where a loss occurs due to multiple causes, and one cause is covered while other causes are excluded, the policy covers whichever cause is the main reason for the damage. The court determined that a reasonable jury could find that the meth contamination qualified as vandalism and hence that USAA should have covered the loss. The appeals court determined the Cummings had the right to challenge USAA’s denial of their claim and sent the case back down to the lower court for trial.

The decision is unpublished, meaning it is not binding precedent, but serves as a good reminder that Washington law frowns on insurers’ efforts to retroactively change their basis for denying coverage after they get caught denying coverage without a reasonable basis.

Court Ruling Illustrates The Limits ERISA Places On Insurers’ Discretion To Decide Claims

Many ERISA plans give the claims administrator (often an insurance company) discretionary authority to interpret the evidence and the terms of the employee benefit plan in deciding claims. This discretionary authority makes it difficult for claimants to overturn claim denials because court defer to decisions made using this authority.

But ERISA recognizes that claims administrators have an incentive to abuse this discretionary authority and limits it in important ways. Where the facts of a particular claim suggest the insurance company or other claims administrator is abusing its authority, courts are required to view the administrator’s handling of the claim with skepticism.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Gary v. Unum is a reminder of the importance that this skepticism has in ERISA disputes. Allison Gary had a medical condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). She had disability insurance through Unum as part of her employer’s benefit plan and made a claim. Unum denied her claim and she filed a lawsuit seeking benefits under ERISA.

The lower court sided with Unum and upheld the denial. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

The Ninth Circuit determined the lower court failed to properly scrutinize Unum’s evaluation of the medical evidence about Gary’s condition. The ERISA plan at issue gave Unum discretion to interpret this evidence. But the Ninth Circuit emphasized that, even where ERISA plan administrators have that discretion, it is checked by common-sense limitations that prevent insurers like Unum from denying claims out of self interest.

The Ninth Circuit held that the facts of Unum’s handling of the claim should have led the lower court to view Unum’s exercise of its discretionary authority to interpret the evidence with skepticism. First and foremost, the Ninth Circuit emphasized that an insurer who, like Unum, is responsible for paying disability claims as well as investigating the claimant’s entitlement to benefits has a perverse incentive to save itself money by looking for evidence to deny claims while ignoring evidence that would support paying benefits. The court emphasized this structural conflict of interest should have been considered.

Second, the appellate court was concerned by Unum’s practice of “cherry picking” certain observations from medical records, i.e., ignoring evidence of Allen’s disability while focusing on evidence that would support denying her claim.

Third, Unum failed to have Gary examined by an EDS specialist. Fourth, Unum cut off Gary’s benefits after exactly six months, an arbitrary measure that was disconnected from the medical evidence.

The Gary decision is unpublished, meaning it is not binding authority but may be relied on at the discretion of lower courts to the extent a judge believes the ruling is helpful.

ERISA at the Supreme Court: How Will Amy Coney Barrett’s Confirmation Shape the Legacy Left By Justice Ginsburg’s Seminal ERISA Opinions?

Amy Coney Barrett was recently confirmed to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg is remembered as a champion of civil rights and gender justice. But Ginsburg is also responsible for some of the Court’s most important ERISA decisions. This invites us to look back on some of Justice Ginsburg’s most important ERISA decisions and speculate about how Justice Barrett might decide future ERISA cases.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the seminal opinion in Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822 (2003), the decision that set the standard for how ERISA Plans and ERISA-governed insurance companies must weigh the opinions of the claimant’s treating doctors. Nord rejected the rule that ERISA plans must defer to the claimant’s doctor’s opinions about the claimant’s medical condition in a disability insurance claim. But Ginsburg emphasized, and the other justices agreed, that ERISA Plans must give fair weight to claimants’ doctors’ opinions. Her opinions emphasizes: “Plan administrators, of course, may not arbitrarily refuse to credit a claimant’s reliable evidence, including the opinions of a treating physician.” Nord protects ERISA claimants’ right to rely on their treating doctors in claiming benefits–a right that is particularly critical since claimants can rarely afford to hire a consulting physician for the purposes of an insurance claim.

A more technical but still important decision by Justice Ginsburg was UNUM Life Insurance v. Ward, 526 U.S. 358 (1999). Ward concerns the extent to which ERISA preempts (i.e., overrules) state laws that regulate insurance policies. Justice Ginsburg wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion finding that ERISA does not stop states from regulating insurance policies that are issued under employee benefit plans. This means that important state-law consumer protections for insurance policies still apply when the insurance policy is sponsored by an employer.

Justice Ginsburg also wrote the opinion in Raymond B. Yates, M.D., P.C. Profit Sharing Plan v. Hendon, 541 U.S. 1 (2004) which confirmed ERISA can apply to a small business owner who participates in their own company’s benefit plan. Many small business owners are familiar with the frustrations of falling into a grey area where they lack the protections of status as an employee but also lack the advantages of being a large business. For ERISA benefits at least, this “worst of both worlds” scenario is less of a concern. The Yates decision held that the owner of a small business can participate in the business’ ERISA plan and thereby obtain the protections and favorable tax treatment that ERISA affords to plan participants.

These decisions reflect a legacy of implementing Congress’ intention in enacting ERISA of providing real protections to people who earn insurance and other benefits through their employment.

Justice Barrett’s record suggests she is likely to continue that legacy. Justice Barrett decided one important ERISA case during her tenure on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal court that hears appeals from Illinois and other midwestern states). In Fessenden v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 927 F.3d 998, 999 (7th Cir. 2019), then-Circuit Judge Barrett determined that ERISA plans, and ERISA-governed insurance companies, must strictly comply with ERISA’s rules requiring full, fair, and prompt review of insurance claims.

In that case, Donald Fessenden made a claim for disability insurance benefits through an insurance policy issued by Reliance through his employer’s benefit plan. Reliance denied his claim and Fessenden appealed the denial using the Plan’s internal administrative procedures. Reliance failed to decide the appeal within the deadline imposed by ERISA. That violation of ERISA had consequences that made it easier for Fessenden to pursue his benefits claim.

Reliance asked the Seventh Circuit to let it off the hook. Reliance argued its violation was “relatively minor” and the court should excuse the violation “because it was only a little bit late.” It characterized the ERISA deadline as a “technical rule.”

Then-Circuit Judge Barrett declined. Her ruling emphasized that ERISA deadlines matter to plan participants:

After all, the administrator’s interests are not the only ones at stake; delaying payment of a claim imposes financial pressure on the claimant. That pressure is particularly acute for a disability claimant, who applies for disability benefits because she is unable to work and therefore unable to generate income. Given the seriousness of that burden, the new regulations single out disability claims for quicker review than other kinds of claims.

Her decision also emphasizes that courts have repeatedly required strict compliance with deadlines by claimants, often at the urging of insurance companies. In requiring the same level of exactitude by ERISA plans and insurers, she observed: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”