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.”

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