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.

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.

Ninth Circuit Confirms Attorneys’ Fee Awards to Successful ERISA Claimants Are Virtually Automatic

ERISA is a remedial law designed to make sure that employees receive the full benefits they earn under their employer’s benefit plans. Part of ERISA requires employee benefit plans that wrongfully withhold benefits and force employees to sue to recover those benefits to pay the employee’s attorney’s fees. Otherwise, the employee will not have received the full amount of benefits owed under the ERISA plan because they will have had to pay the enormous legal expenses involved in litigating an ERISA case. Without this guarantee, employees would often wind up with a legal bill that’s higher than the benefits they recovered.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently re-affirmed that successful ERISA claimants should be awarded their attorneys’ fees virtually automatically in Herrman v. Lifemap Assurance Company, Case No. 19-35182 (June 25, 2020). Courts have recognized for many years that an employee who wins their ERISA case should recover attorneys’ fees absent “special circumstances” that would make a fee award “unjust.” In the Ninth Circuit, courts also look at several different sets of circumstances (called the “Hummell factors” after the name of the case where they originated) to decide whether to award attorneys’ fees to ERISA plaintiffs. The lower court in the Herrman case declined to award attorneys fees to the plaintiff even though she recovered benefits from her ERISA plan because the lower court believed the Hummell factors did not support awarding fees under the circumstances.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court. The Ninth Circuit emphasized that:

“the presumption in favor of fees in such cases [i.e., where an ERISA plaintiff successfully recovers benefits] means that the district court need not discuss the Hummell factors before granting the motion [for attorneys’ fees].”

Thus, the court concluded that judges may not deny attorneys’ fees to successful ERISA plaintiffs–even if the Hummell factors suggest fees should not be awarded–without identifying “special circumstances” that would render a fee award unjust.

The Hermann decision is a helpful reminder that Congress’ guarantee in enacting ERISA that employees receive the full amount of their benefits requires that employees not have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to obtain those benefits.

ERISA Claim Deadlines Extended Due to COVID-19

ERISA-governed insurance claims are subject to specific deadlines that claimants have to meet in order to protect their rights. Normally, the consequences of missing a deadline are draconian. For instance, appealing an ERISA claim denial even one day late can irrevocably waive the right to dispute the denial, no matter the reason for the delay.

The good news is that these deadlines have been relaxed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Labor, the federal agency responsible for overseeing ERISA-governed employee benefit plans, has issued an order extending certain ERISA claim deadlines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This order comes pursuant to authority granted by Congress in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (a/k/a the “CARES” Act).

DOL is extending these deadlines so that plan participants, beneficiaries, and employers have additional time to make critical coverage and other benefit decisions during the pandemic. The upshot is:

  • Disability insurance claimants have additional time to submit claims and appeal denied claims. These deadlines do not run during the period from March 1, 2020, until 60 days after the federal government announces the end of the current COVID-19 national emergency. That means an appeal that would normally be due next week might not be due until 60 days after the federal government announces the end of the national pandemic emergency.
  • Group health plans have additional time to comply with COBRA continuation coverage deadlines. This is critical for employees recently laid off and looking for answers about continued health insurance coverage.
  • Group health plans also have extra time to determine benefit claims; and
  • ERISA plans have extra time to provide disclosures and notices required by ERISA, provided the plan acts in good faith and furnishes the disclosure or notice as soon as practicable under the circumstances, including through electronic means.

The Department of Labor has FAQs for ERISA claimants and participants regarding the deadline extensions.

These extensions will help employees and plan participants effectively safeguard their rights during the pandemic.