ERISA Plan Administrators Can Be Sued Under State Law Where Performing Non-Fiduciary Functions Says Ninth Circuit

Suppose a person is ready to retire but wants to make sure they’ll be financially secure in their retirement before they stop working. Calculating their pension benefits is confusing and arcane. Luckily, their employer’s pension plan website has a benefit calculator. This person plugs in their information and is told they’ll receive $2,000 a month in pension benefits if they retire tomorrow. They retire, depending on this income, only to be told later that the website was faulty and they’ll only receive $800 a month.

Does our hypothetical retiree have recourse when the rug is pulled out from under them like this? Yes, according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Washington and other Western states).

In Bafford v. Northrop Grumman Corporation, et al, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that employees harmed by misrepresentations about their benefits have relief under state law even when ERISA provides no recourse.

Bafford worked for Northrop Grumman and participated in Northrop’s pension plan. Anticipating retirement, he requested pension benefit estimates from the pension plan’s website. The website was run by a third party company named Hewitt, who had been hired by the pension plan to perform administrative services.

Hewitt sent Bafford statements representing he would receive about $2,000 per month in retirement benefits. After he retired and began receiving monthly benefits, Hewitt discovered it had made a mistake in calculating the $2,000 monthly amount. Hewitt notified Bafford that his benefits were really only about $800 per month.

Bafford sued Hewitt, Northrop, and other entities involved in the mistake, asserting several different legal theories. The federal District Court dismissed the entire action, and Bafford appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court and ruled that Bafford had at least some recourse for Hewitt’s misstatement of the amount of his retirement benefits. The Ninth Circuit looked at Bafford’s claims under two different avenues: first, whether Bafford could sue under ERISA, and, second, whether he could sue under state law.

The Court of Appeals found that ERISA provided Bafford no relief. Bafford could not bring ERISA claims against Northrop, Hewitt and the other entities involved in administering the benefit plan because they were not acting as “fiduciaries” under ERISA. An ERISA “fiduciary” owes a serious duty to employees participating in the benefit plan, and has to keep the employee/participants’ interests upmost in mind when making decisions about the benefit plan. But the court found that Northrop, Hewitt, and their associates were not acting as “fiduciaries” as ERISA uses that term; they merely applied benefit calculation formulas without exercising any discretion. In other words, they acted as little more than calculators.

But the appellate court found that state law provided Bafford relief. ERISA normally pre-empts state laws regarding employee benefits, meaning employees typically cannot bring state law claims in disputes about pensions and other benefits. But having determined that ERISA provided Bafford no relief from pension calculation errors that harmed him and were clearly the Plan’s fault, the Ninth Circuit found that the normal pre-emption rule did not apply:

Holding both that Hewitt’s calculations were not a fiduciary function and that state-law claims are preempted would deprive Plaintiffs of a remedy for the wrong they allege without examination of the merits of their claim. Broadly, this would be inconsistent with ERISA’s purpose.

Since Hewitt’s calculation of Bafford’s benefits was not a fiduciary function under ERISA, he was allowed to seek relief under state law.

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.

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.”

ERISA Litigation Spawns Ninth Circuit Decision in Case of First Impression Regarding Excess Insurance Coverage

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Washington and other western states) recently decided a novel question regarding so-called “excess” insurance coverage. Excess insurance exists where a person or entity has two layers of insurance: a “primary” insurer that provides coverage up to a specific dollar amount, and a second, “excess”, insurer that provides additional coverage above that amount. In its September 14, 2020 decision in AXIS Reinsurance Company v Northrop Grumman Corporation, the Ninth Circuit addressed the question whether an excess insurer can challenge the primary insurer’s decision to pay a claim and thereby trigger the excess insurer’s obligation to pay.

The dispute between AXIS and Northrop Grumman began with an ERISA lawsuit. The federal Department of Labor sued Northrop Grumman alleging Northrop acted improperly in handling its ERISA-governed employee savings and pension plans. Northrop paid a confidential amount to settle the DOL lawsuit. Northrop did not admit any wrongdoing, and the lawsuit never resulted in any findings about what specific allegations the settlement payment addressed.

A few months later, Northrop settled a second, unrelated, ERISA lawsuit brought on behalf of the Plan by a plaintiff named Grabek.

Northrop had insurance against these types of ERISA lawsuit through both primary and excess insurance carriers. Northrop’s primary insurer, National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, PA, and an initial excess insurer, Continental Casualty Company, provided coverage up to a total of $30 million. AXIS provided secondary excess coverage for losses over $30 million. In other words, AXIS only had to pay claims if Northrop’s loss exceeded the $30 million covered by the first two insurers.

The carriers covered Northrop’s settlement for the Department of Labor lawsuit. The primary insurer, National Union, and the first excess insurer, Continental, determined the DOL lawsuit was covered, and paid Northrop’s full loss out of their combined $30 million limit.

But Northrop ran into trouble getting coverage for the Grabek lawsuit. Having paid for the entire DOL settlement, National Union and Continental determined that all but about $7 million that Northrop had to pay in the Grabek lawsuit exceeded their combined $30 million coverage limits. Having exhausted its first layer of coverage, Northrop turned to its excess insurer AXIS to pay the remainder of the Grabek settlement.

AXIS refused to pay. It agreed there was coverage for the Grabek lawsuit, but it claimed that the first two insurers shouldn’t have paid the DOL settlement. AXIS claimed that the primary insurers’ policies excluded the DOL settlement. So, AXIS argued, since the first two carriers shouldn’t have paid for the DOL settlement, the first $30 million in coverage should never have been exhausted, and AXIS should never have been called upon to pay for the Grabek lawsuit. According to AXIS, this was an “improper erosion” of the initial $30 million in coverage. No federal appellate court had previously addressed AXIS’ “improper erosion” theory.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed. It determined that AXIS bore the risk that the primary insurers would exhaust their coverage limits by paying for losses that weren’t really covered. The court explained that excess insurers generally may not reduce their own obligation to pay a covered loss by claiming that the primary insurers shouldn’t have paid. The court emphasized that excess insurers generally have no right to second guess primary insurers’ coverage decisions. The excess insurer could avoid this outcome by including in their policy contracts a provision that improper payments by the primary insurers don’t count, but AXIS had no such language.