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.

Coronavirus Insurance Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many types of insurance questions. Below is an FAQ on some insurance issues people may be dealing with during the pandemic. As always, it’s important to keep in mind that the specific facts and insurance policy language will vary from case to case. An FAQ can’t take the place of legal advice from consulting with an attorney directly. But hopefully this will help point you in the right direction.

Health Insurance

Typical health insurance covers COVID-19 treatment just the same as any other illness. Washington’s Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) exchange platform is allowing a special open enrollment period for qualified uninsured individuals to buy insurance on the state Exchange through April 8, 2020. This is an exception to the normal rule that you can only buy Exchange coverage during special periods.

There are also special rules for COVID-19 testing. The federal government designated COVID-19 testing as an essential health benefit, meaning that Medicaid and Medicare plans should cover testing. Washington’s Office of the Insurance Commissioner has ordered health insurers to cover COVID-19 testing without deductibles or cost-sharing. Also, insurers have to allow patients to refill necessary prescriptions regardless of the normal waiting periods.

Disability Insurance

Employees unable to work due to COVID-19 might have recourse under disability insurance policies.  Disability coverage should provide benefits for folks who can’t work because they are sick. But, as always, the fine print matters. Many policies have waiting periods or other detailed rules for paying benefits. The specific rules will also depend on how you obtained coverage. Most folks get disability insurance from their employer, and will have to navigate the special claims procedures under ERISA. For folks who bought their policies themselves, claims will be governed by Washington State law which is generally more policyholder-friendly.

Business Loss Insurance

Businesses who close or lose revenue because of the pandemic or the state-ordered lockdown might have claims for business interruption coverage. This coverage is often provided by standard commercial insurance policies. These claims depend heavily on the specific policy language and facts. For example, some policies require actual physical damage to property before paying business interruption benefits. Other policies might require the business be closed by the authorities. It is also important to be able to document the specific losses incurred under business interruption coverage.

Know Your Rights

Anyone who thinks they have insurance coverage related to COVID-19 should be on top of their rights. In disasters like this pandemic, insurers often cut corners or underpay claims. Washington State insurance policyholders have important rights, including the right to a full, fair, and prompt investigation of their claim at the insurer’s expense. Insurers also have a duty to fully disclose all the potential coverage that you might have.

Finally, here are some resources for non-insurance issues relating to the pandemic:

 

 

 

 

ERISA Insurer’s Hiding Doctor’s Opinions Results in Appellate Win for Claimant

On December 11, 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Washington and other coastal and western states) decided Wagenstein v. Cigna Life Insurance Company. The decision is unpublished, meaning it is not binding on lower courts but may still be used as persuasive authority.

Lea Wagenstein sued to challenge Cigna’s termination of her long-term disability benefits under an ERISA-governed insurance policy. The district court dismissed Wagenstein’s case, agreeing with Cigna’s decision to terminate benefits.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court. The court emphasized that even Cigna’s own consultant, hired to examine Wagenstein at Cigna’s behest, determined Wagenstein’s disability precluded her from sitting more than 2.5 hours per day. As such, the Ninth Circuit noted that report showed Wagenstein could not perform sedentary work requiring sitting for most of an 8 hour workday.

The Ninth Circuit noted Cigna possessed a report from another consultant, hired by Cigna, who determined Wagenstein could actually sit for a full workday and thus could perform two sedentary jobs. Cigna relied on this report in concluding Wagenstein was not disabled. But Cigna hid the report from Wagenstein until Cigna’s final denial of her appeal of the termination of her benefits. That deprived Wagenstein of the opportunity to provide a response from her treating physicians, who agreed Wagenstein was disabled. Failing to provide Wagenstein the report violated ERISA’s rules requiring full and fair review of claims.

Because Cigna violated ERISA by withholding its physician’s report, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case back to the lower court with instructions to allow Wagenstein to submit statements from her doctors rebutting Cigna’s consultant in determining whether Wagenstein remained entitled to disability insurance benefits.

The Wagenstein decision, while not binding precedent, remains an important reminder that, where the insurer relies on consultants’ opinions in denying claims or terminating benefits, ERISA protects the claimant’s right to rebut the insurer’s evidence.

 

Court Rejects ERISA Insurer’s Effort to Discredit Treating Physicians in Awarding Disability Benefits

A recent decision from federal court in Oregon is an interesting example of how ERISA disability benefit disputes can arise where the claimant suffers from complex and hard-to-diagnose conditions such as fibromyalgia. Since conditions like fibromyalgia defy easy identification, these cases often turn on the claimant’s treating doctor’s documentation of the claimant’s symptoms.

Jane Medefesser sued her LTD carrier, MetLife, after MetLife denied her disability insurance claim. Medefesser suffered from a host of medical conditions including fibromyalgia and migraines. Medefesser’s doctors opined her medical conditions impacted her ability to function even in a sedentary job.

MetLife initially approved Medefesser’s disability claim. But MetLife subsequently changed its position and terminated Medefesser’s benefits after an “independent” doctor hired by MetLife determined Medefesser could perform sedentary work. MetLife also relied on opinions from its physicians that Medefesser’s doctors were, supposedly, exaggerating Medefesser’s symptoms.

The court disagreed with MetLife that Medefesser’s doctors were exaggerating her symptoms. To the contrary, the court noted that, given the complexity of Medefesser’s condition, the treating doctors who personally examined Medefesser were in the best position to reliably assess her disability.

This ruling is notable because it addresses a common issue in ERISA disability cases involving conditions like migraines or fibromyalgia. Where the claimant’s disability arises from complex conditions that defy easy diagnosis, disability insurers have an incentive to rely on the supposed lack of “objective” findings or review by “independent” consultants. These consultants’ opinions typically boil down to: “if it doesn’t show up on an x-ray, it’s not real.” The Medefesser decision is a great example of a judge rejecting such an argument.

 

Ninth Circuit Emphasizes Importance of ERISA Claims-Handling Regulation in Reversing LTD Benefit Denial

ERISA-governed disability benefit claims are subject to the Department of Labor’s regulation requiring full and fair investigation of claims. The regulation includes rules requiring claims administrators apply plan provisions correctly and thoroughly investigate claims. A claims administrator’s failure to adhere to the rules expressed in the regulation can be the difference-maker if the benefit dispute proceeds to litigation. A recent unpublished Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Alves v. Hewlett-Packard Comprehensive Welfare Benefits Plan, emphasizes this.

Alves applied for short-term disability and long-term disability under his employee benefit plan. The plan’s claims administrator, Sedgwick, determined Alves’ condition did not render him disabled, i.e., that Alves could still perform his job duties. On that basis, Sedgwick denied both the short- and long-term disability claims. The federal district court agreed with Sedgwick.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court. The Ninth Circuit agreed that Sedgwick’s decision Alves didn’t qualify for short-term disability benefits was adequately supported by Alves’ medical information. But the court found Sedgwick incorrectly evaluated Alves’ long-term disability claim. Sedgwick denied Alves’ long-term disability claim because Sedgwick concluded Alves failed to meet the plan’s one-week waiting period. The court concluded Alves’ clearly met this requirement. Accordingly, the court remanded Alves’ long-term disability claim to Sedgwick for further investigation. The Ninth Circuit admonished Sedgwick to follow ERISA’s rules requiring full and fair investigation of claims in reviewing Alves’ long-term disability clam on remand.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion is unpublished, meaning it is only persuasive precedent. Lower courts may follow this decision if they find it persuasive, but they are not required to.

The Alves decision is an important reminder that ERISA claims administrators can be held accountable for failing to correctly apply plan provisions and failing to investigate claims in compliance with ERISA’s implementing regulation.