Plan Administration Litigation

By Jonathan A. Braunstein and Michael W. Stevens

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently confirmed that ERISA preempts state insurance law bans on discretionary clauses  for self-funded ERISA plans.

The Ninth Circuit has weighed into the national debate over discretionary clauses in ERISA plans, holding that ERISA preempts a state-law ban on discretionary clauses for self-funded disability plans, but not for fully-insured plans. Williby v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., No. 15-56394, Aug. 15, 2019 (9th Cir.).

In Williby, an employee of The Boeing Company sought disability benefits.  Boeing provided its employees with a self-funded short-term disability program, administered by Aetna.  The plan included a so-called discretionary clause, providing Aetna with “full discretionary authority to determine all questions that may arise,” including determination of benefits eligibility and scope.  Discretionary clauses effectively make an administrator’s determinations subject to a higher standard of review (abuse of discretion), rather than a de novo review.

The employee sought short-term disability benefits, which Aetna granted in part but denied in part. The employee then sued, accusing Aetna of wrongful denial.  The trial court reviewed Aetna’s determination de novo, finding in part that Cal. Ins. Code § 10110.6 — a ban on discretionary clauses in life or disability insurance — prohibited application of a more stringent standard of review. The trial court then held that plaintiff was entitled to more benefits than what Aetna had originally granted. Aetna appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded. The Court ruled that ERISA preempted § 10110.6, as applied to the self-funded plan at issue. The Ninth Circuit focused its analysis on the difference between a fully-insured and a self-funded benefit plan.  The Court held that there “is a simple, bright-line rule: if a plan is insured, a State may regulate it indirectly through regulation of its insurer and its insurer’s insurance contracts; if the plan is uninsured, the State may not regulate it. . . . Thus, for a self-funded disability plan like Boeing’s, the saving clause does not apply, and state insurance regulations operating on such a self-funded plan are preempted.”

The Court then held that, because § 10110.6 was preempted, Aetna’s decisions were entitled to an abuse of discretion standard, and remanded for further proceedings.

Thus, while the national battle over the force of state discretionary clause bans continues to be fought, self-funded plans in the Ninth Circuit can point to Williby as setting a clear and bright line limit on the interplay of state insurance regulations and ERISA. In the coming years,   we expect to see many more cases presenting ERISA preemption issues in the near future, as it remains a very hot-button and heavily litigated issue.  Stay tuned to this blog for further updates.

 

 

By: Ian Morrison and Tom Horan

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a strong decision for insurers, the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the administrator, rejected plaintiff’s conflict of interest argument, and found that it was not arbitrary for the administrator to require objective evidence of impairment when processing an LTD claim.

Cooper v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, No 16-3429, 2017 WL 2853729 (8th Cir. July 5, 2017), is a fairly typical ERISA long-term disability case, but has unusually strong pro-insurer holdings. On appeal from a summary judgment win for MetLife, the Eight Circuit conclusively rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the insurer’s dual role as decisionmaker and payor of benefits warranted a closer review of its decision.

In support of the LTD claim at issue, plaintiff submitted documentation from both her treating physician and her chiropractor. MetLife found no clinical findings to support disability. Plaintiff did not formally appeal, but continued to correspond with MetLife and supplied additional notes from her treating physician. MetLife referred those records, as well as the records from previous STD and LTD claims, to an independent physician for review. The reviewing physician found no objective clinical support for the conclusion that plaintiff was disabled as defined in the plan.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the district court erred in applying the abuse of discretion standard and refusing to consider affidavits from her treating physician and chiropractor that were outside the administrative record. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that MetLife’s dual role warranted more searching review. The court noted that plaintiff’s generic claim of conflict was devoid of evidence of biased decision making. Instead, the court found that the record evinced a comprehensive review, including reliance on the opinion of a qualified independent expert, and did not require a “less deferential” review under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105 (2008).

The Eighth Circuit also found it permissible for the insurer to rely on the opinion of its retained physician instead of the competing views of a treating physician, especially where the plaintiff was given repeated notice of the type of evidence missing from her physician’s submissions. In reaching its conclusion, the court rejected the oft-heard argument that it was arbitrary to insist upon objective evidence of impairment. The court stated that that MetLife was entitled to favor the reviewing physician’s opinion over that of plaintiff’s treating physician—particularly where the treating physician was not tasked with interpreting “disability” as defined in the plan—so long as the reviewing physician’s conclusion was a reasonable one to draw from the record. Finally, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that MetLife violated the ERISA claims regulations by having a nurse with unspecified credentials interpret certain lab tests, reasoning that MetLife was in substantial compliance with the claim regulations and that there was no evidence that having a different professional review the tests would have changed the outcome.

Cooper will become a go to case for insurers and other benefit plan administrators to cite in their summary judgment briefs, at least as to its “objective evidence” and conflict holdings.  The court’s “substantial compliance” holding, however, may not survive the implementation of the revised DOL claim regulations.

 

By: Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Chris Busey

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Eighth Circuit upheld dismissal of Title VII claims challenging an employee benefit plan’s blanket transgender exclusion because the exclusion impacted the  employee’s transgender son, not the employee. The Eight Circuit overturned the dismissal of the employee’s claim against the plan’s third-party administrator under the Affordable Care Act, finding the complaint sufficiently alleged an actionable claim against the TPA.

The Eighth Circuit granted a potentially short-lived reprieve to a plaintiff challenging a blanket exclusion for transgender services contained in her employer’s health plan. The case, Tovar v. Essentia Health, et al, No. 16-3186 (8th Cir. May 24, 2017), allowed part of the plaintiff’s claim alleging a violation under Section 1557 of the ACA to proceed by remanding it to the district court.

The Section 1557 regulations at issue in Tovar are currently subject to a nationwide injunction issued in the Northern District of Texas. The Department of Health and Human Services is party in that suit, and has indicated that it may seek to repeal that regulation through the typical notice and comment rulemaking procedures. The Circuit Court did not address the precarious nature of Section 1557 in its decision.

Rather, the Eighth Circuit restricted its analysis to the decision of the district court. The District Court dismissed Tovar’s claims under Title VII, the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and Section 1557, as we covered here.

The Eighth Circuit first upheld the dismissal of Tovar’s Title VII and MHRA claims. It agreed that Tovar was not within the class of individuals protected by those statutes because she did not allege discrimination based on her own sex, but that of her transgender son.

The Court went on to overturn the dismissal of the ACA claim against the TPA. The District Court had dismissed her ACA claims for lack of Article III standing because Tovar named the wrong entity and because only the employer (not the TPA) had the ability to modify plan terms (such as the transgender exclusion). The Eighth Circuit found the plan documents did not definitively establish that the named defendant had no involvement in the administration of the plan. The Eighth Circuit further found that Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts showing that the “allegedly discriminatory terms originated” with the TPA. And thus this issue was remanded to the district court.

The Eighth Circuit specifically declined to address the argument that an administrator could not be liable for administering a plan where plan design is under the sole control of another organization. The dissent forcefully addressed this question, noting that an Office of Civil Rights interpretation of Section 1557 provides that “third party administrators are generally not responsible for the benefit design of the self-insured plans they administer and ERISA . . . requires plans to be administered consistent with their terms.”

By: Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Jules Levenson

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a decision with wide ranging implications, the Ninth Circuit has ruled that a discretionary clause in an employer drafted plan document is subject to, and invalidated by, California’s insurance regulation banning discretionary clauses in insured plans.

In recent years a number of states have passed insurance regulations barring discretionary clauses in disability insurance policies in order to make it easier for participants to prevail on ERISA claims. A question that has dogged these regulations is the extent to which they are preempted by ERISA.  One particularly strong argument raised by employers is that even if a state insurance regulation can control an insurer-drafted plan document, basic principles of ERISA preemption preclude state law from invalidating any provision in an employer plan document.

The Ninth Circuit has now weighed in on this issue and in a victory for plaintiff, the Court of Appeals held that a state discretionary ban is not preempted by ERISA and properly extends to employer-drafted plans as long as the plan provides for insured benefits. Orzechowski v. Boeing Co. Non-Union Long Term Disab. Plan, No. 14-55919, ‑‑ F.3d –, 2017 WL 1947883 (9th Cir. May 11, 2017).

Orzechowski involved a denial of disability benefits. Defendant argued that the claim was subject to the highly deferential abuse of discretion review, as the employer drafted plan conferred discretion on the insurer (claim administrator) to decide claim.  The district court agreed. The district court further found that because the plan was in effect prior to the enactment of California’s discretionary clause ban, it was not covered by the ban.

The Court of Appeals reversed. The Court found the plan subject to the ban, because although the plan was in effect prior to the ban’s enactment, Plaintiff claimed benefits under an insurance policy that renewed (as defined by the statute) after the statute’s effective date.  Examining whether the plan was preempted by ERISA, the Court found that even though Boeing is not an insurance company, the law was directed to the insurance industry and, because the benefit at issuewas an insured benefit, all plan documents covering this benefit were subject to California state insurance regulations (including the discretionary ban).  Accordingly, the Court found the law valid as a regulation of insurance.  It thus remanded the claim for consideration under the de novo standard.

This case will likely have significant repercussions for plans in the context of benefits decisions, both in California and nationally. Absent reversal by an en banc panel of the Supreme Court, Not only will a significant number of decisions now be subject to de novo review in states in the Ninth Circuit, states considering banning discretionary clauses may be emboldened or spurred to action by this decision.  With fewer decisions afforded deference, a concomitant rise in litigation challenging benefits decisions is likely to follow.  Only time will reveal the exact extent of the impact.  Stay tuned.

 

By, Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Jim Goodfellow

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an opinion that may result in increasingly complex ERISA benefits litigation, the Eighth Circuit has allowed a breach of fiduciary duty claim premised on alleged faulty claims handling practices to proceed in conjunction with a claim for benefits.

In a case that should catch the attention of ERISA plan administrators, the Eighth Circuit in Jones v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, et al held that a breach of fiduciary duty claim premised on improper claims handling could survive a motion to dismiss, even where the plaintiff also brought a claim for benefits seeking the same unpaid benefits.

In Jones, Plaintiff brought two claims against insurer Aetna: 1) a claim for benefits premised on Aetna’s termination of Plaintiff’s disability benefit; and 2) a breach of fiduciary duty claim premised on Aetna’s claims handling practices. The district court dismissed the breach of fiduciary duty claim as duplicative of the claim for benefits, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Varity Corp. v Howe, 516 U.S. 489 (1996), which instructed that section 502(a)(3) breach of fiduciary duty claims function as a “safety net, offering appropriate equitable relief for injuries caused by violations that § 502 does not elsewhere adequately remedy.”  On summary judgment, the court held that Aetna did not abuse its discretion in denying the claim for benefits.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of benefits. But, the Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the breach of fiduciary duty claim. The court found it was consistent with Varity Corp to allow a fiduciary breach claim to proceed in tandem with a claim for benefits so long as both claims set forth a different theory of relief. The court found that Plaintiff had made this showing, as “[e]ven if an administrator made a decision with procedural irregularities that seriously breach its duties to its beneficiary, it is not necessarily liable under (a)(1)(B); instead, the serious breach prompts a more searching review of the denial of benefits claim.” The Eighth Circuit remanded the breach of fiduciary duty claim for further proceedings.

This decision stands in sharp contrast to the Sixth Circuit’s en banc decision in Rochow v. Life Insurance Company of North America, 780 F.3d 364 (6th Cir. 2015), and with Varity Corp. and its progeny. In Rochow, the Sixth Circuit held that because the plaintiff could be made whole by the remedies available under section 502(a)(1)(B) and section 502(g) through payment of benefits, interest, and attorney’s fees, the plaintiff could not recover under section 502(a)(3). Given how out of step Jones is with longstanding practice, it is likely that Aetna will seek en banc review, or even file a petition of certiorari with the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, while this case continues to work its way through the courts, it is likely that plaintiffs will rely on Jones in justifying pairing routine claims for benefits with claims for equitable relief.

An upsurge in such litigation, while in the short-run potentially advantageous to participants who will be able to obtain extra-contractual equitable remedies (such as sur-charge and disgorgement), risks in the long run causing insurers to greatly raise premiums to address high litigation costs. This in turn risks chilling the willingness of employers to offer ERISA disability benefits to their employees. Stay tuned for how this case plays out, either on further appeal or in future cases.

By: Jim Goodfellow and Ian Morrison

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fifth Circuit has concluded that Texas’ ban on discretionary language in insurance policies does not alter the standard of review related factual determinations made by ERISA administrators. In so holding, the Court has suggested that Texas’ ban on discretionary language does not apply to non-insurance policy plan documents, which could create a circuit split on this issue.

In Ariana M. v. Humana Health Plan of Texas, Inc., No. 16-20174 (5th Cir. Apr. 21, 2017), the Firth Circuit concluded that Texas’ ban on discretionary clauses in certain insurance policies did not require a de novo review of the defendant administrator’s factual determinations in an ERISA claim for benefits.

In the Fifth Circuit, an ERISA administrator’s factual conclusions are reviewed for an abuse of discretion regardless of whether the plan contains Firestone discretionary language. See, e.g., Green v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 754 F.3d 324, 329 (5th Cir. 2014) (noting that the standard of review for factual determinations is abuse of discretion regardless of the presence of a discretionary clause); Dutka ex rel. Estate of T.M. v. AIG Life Ins. Co., 573 F.3d 210, 212 (5th Cir. 2009) (“with or without a discretion[ary] clause, a district court rejects an administrator’s factual determinations in the course of a benefits review only upon the showing of an abuse of discretion.”).

Texas has enacted a ban on discretionary language in insurance policies: Texas Insurance Code Section 1701.062(a). In Ariana, the plaintiff argued that this ban precludes deference to and mandates a de novo review of the administrator’s factual findings. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, stating that “[t]he plain text of [Section 1701.062(a)] provides only that a discretionary clause cannot be written into an insurance policy; it does not mandate a standard of review.” Thus, “[Section 1701.062(a)], by its terms, does not mandate a standard of review.” Instead, it provides only that an insurer “may not use a document if the document contains a discretionary clause.” The Fifth Circuit interpreted Section 1701.062(a) to mandates what language can and cannot be put into an insurance contract in Texas, but stated that “[i]t does not mandate a specific standard of review for insurance claims.”

This decision preserves the abuse of discretion review of factual findings, but also suggests that the Fifth Circuit would find that Texas’ discretionary ban does not apply to non-insurance policy plan documents, and does not apply to insurance policies issued in states other than Texas.

By: Michael Stevens and Ronald Kramer

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Sixth Circuit becomes the seventh circuit court to not require administrative exhaustion for statutory ERISA claims (as opposed to denial of benefit claims), while two circuit courts still do.

In a decision earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit joined six other circuit courts in holding that ERISA claims that seek vindication of statutory ERISA rights pertaining to the legality of a plan amendment, as opposed to an interpretation of the plan, are not subject to administrative exhaustion requirements.  The Sixth Circuit joined the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits in so holding, while the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits require administrative exhaustion even where plaintiffs assert statutory rights.

In Hitchcock v. Cumberland University 403(b) DC Plan, No. 16-5942, — F.3d —-, 2017 WL 971790 (6th Cir. Mar. 14, 2017), Plaintiffs, participants in the Defendant University’s defined contribution pension plan, challenged a retroactive amendment pertaining to matching contributions.  In 2009, the University added a five percent matching contribution, and amended the summary plan description to define the match.  However, in October 2014, the University amended the plan to replace the five percent match with a discretionary match, and retroactively made the match for the 2013-14 year zero percent.  In May 2014, the University had announced that the match for the 2014-15 year would also be zero percent.

In November 2015, Plaintiffs filed suit on a purported class basis bringing four counts:  wrongful denial of benefits under 29 U.S.C. § 1131(a)(1)(B), an anti-cutback violation under 29 U.S.C. § 1054(g), failure to provide notice under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), and breach of fiduciary duty under 29 U.S.C. § 1104.

Defendants ultimately filed a motion to dismiss (which was converted to a motion for judgment on the pleadings), which in relevant part asserted that Plaintiffs had failed to administratively exhaust their anti-cutback and breach of fiduciary duty claims.  The district court granted the motion, finding that Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.  Plaintiffs appealed.

The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that Plaintiffs’ claim challenged the “legality of the Plan amendment . . . [not] the calculation of their benefits.”  The district court improperly construed Plaintiffs’ claims, because the “resulting benefits are not the gravamen of Plaintiffs’ challenge. . . . It is a serious mischaracterization to simply say that because the denial of benefits claim and the statutory ERISA claims result in the same monetary sum, all must constitute denial of benefits claims.  Our precedent indicates that administrative exhaustion is a futile requirement for statutory ERISA claims that challenge the legality of a plan amendment.” (Emphasis added.)

The Court cautioned that “plan-based claims ‘artfully dressed in statutory clothing,’ such as where a plaintiff seeks to avoid the exhaustion requirement by recharacterizing a claim for benefits as a claim for breach of fiduciary duty” are still subject to administrative exhaustion.  The touchstone is what forms the basis for the right to relief:  “[T]he contractual terms of the pension plan or the provisions of ERISA and its regulations. . . The rights Plaintiffs assert—the right to receive accrued benefits which have not been decreased by an illegal amendment, and the right to have a fiduciary discharge his or her duties in accordance with the statute—are granted to them by ERISA, not by the Plan’s contractual terms.  Thus, Plaintiffs assert statutory claims, which are not subject to the exhaustion requirement.”

With the majority of circuits now firmly holding that exhaustion is not required for statutory claims, it is unclear whether Hitchcock is a likely vehicle for the Supreme Court to resolve the dispute.  In the meantime, plan defendants seeking to require administrative exhaustion must make their best efforts to characterize plaintiffs’ claims as challenges to plan terms or benefits determinations, rather than seeking vindication of statutory rights under ERISA.

By: Alexius O’Malley and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: A Court ruled that under the Affordable Care Act, an ERISA governed plan exclusion cannot unequivocally bar emergency medical care related to injuries sustained in a fireworks explosion.

Recently, a federal court in Minnesota addressed whether a participant in a self-funded ERISA-governed welfare plan, could recover $225,000 in medical care and expenses incurred for injuries participant sustained in an explosion while igniting mortar-style fireworks on Independence Day 2015.  In Henrikson v. Choice Products USA, LLC, 16-CV-1317 (MJD/LIB), 2016 WL 6143357 (D. Minn. Oct. 20, 2016), the plan had denied the benefit claim due to its illegal activities exclusion for medical care. In challenging the benefit denial, Plaintiff raised a mix of claims under ERISA, common-law and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The Court found that the illegal activities exclusion was unambiguous. It further found the exclusion was not void as a matter of public policy. In so finding the Court rejected Plaintiff’s novel theory that because “everyone” lights fireworks on Independence Day, applying the illegal activities exclusion would be improper

The Court found it could not determine on a motion to dismiss whether the illegal activities exclusion extended to firework use. It noted the plan was ambiguous as to which law governed the illegality of an activity. Plaintiff argued that the plan was ambiguous in that the applicable law could be Minnesota (Plaintiff’s residence, where igniting fireworks is illegal), Wisconsin (the employer’s home state, where the plan was given effect, where igniting fireworks is legal), or Federal (due to ERISA preemption, where no federal law exists that would render ignition of fireworks illegal). The appropriate governing law for criminal activity would typically be the state in which the act occurred, nonetheless, the Court declined to rule on that issue at the motion to dismiss stage and found Plaintiff’s ambiguity argument plausible.

The Court further found that because the plan at issue was a “group health plan” under the ACA and that Plaintiff sufficiently pled that the plan covers some services in an emergency department of the hospital, it was “facially plausible” that the ACA would require the plan to provide “emergency services” and could not deny such coverage. The ACA does not mandate that a “group health plan” cover emergency services, but it does mandate that if a plan does cover “emergency services” those services must be reimbursed at the same level in-network and out-of-network. A ruling that the ACA requires coverage for emergency services would be a very broad expansion of the law.

This decision highlights the importance of ensuring that plan language is clearly drafted so as to avoid preventable ambiguity. The decision further underscores plaintiffs’ utilization of the ACA to increase the theories and remedies available in ERISA benefits cases.

By: Amanda Sonneborn and Thomas Horan

Be careful what you ask for. The Plaintiff in a recent case from the Central District of California learned that lesson when the Plan’s re-evaluation of her claim for benefits revealed that she was apparently working as a stunt coordinator and stunt actress, despite having received disability pension payments for nearly ten years. In Hoffman v. Screen Actors Guild-Producers Pension Plan, the Plaintiff sought to convert her disability pension to an “occupational disability pension” to receive the additional benefit of health coverage. The Plan denied her request, finding a lack of evidence that her disability (severe depression) had resulted from her employment as a stunt actress. The Benefits Committee denied her appeal of that decision, and Plaintiff brought suit to challenge that determination. No. 2:16-cv-01530, 2016 WL 6537531 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2016).

The district court granted the Plan’s original motion for summary judgment on May 3, 2012. The Ninth Circuit reversed that decision, finding that the Plan had failed to provide Plaintiff a full and fair review, and directed that the case be remanded to the Plan to obtain a second medical opinion. The Plan submitted Plaintiff’s file for consideration by two panels, including six different specialists. Five specialists reached the conclusion that Plaintiff had never been “totally disabled” under the Plan. The sixth found that she could work in jobs that met certain criteria.

The review also revealed that Plaintiff had continued working as a stunt coordinator since 2004, despite receiving disability pension benefits because she was “unable to work.” Plaintiff’s personal website, LinkedIn profile, and IMDb page listed stunt and acting credits from 2004 through 2010. Plaintiff removed these posts after Defendants brought them to the court’s attention in supplemental pleading.

In March 2016, the Benefits Committee both denied Plaintiff’s appeal as to her “occupational disability pension” and terminated her disability pension. Plaintiff again sued to challenge that determination. The parties agreed that the Plan gave discretion to the administrator, and the court applied an abuse of discretion standard. The court found that the decision to deny Plaintiff benefits was neither arbitrary nor capricious.

The court found that the Benefits Committee had given Plaintiff a clear, reasoned explanation of its decision, and that it was rationally based on two reports, from six different medical specialists, as well as on Plaintiff’s various internet profiles. As the Committee did not abuse its discretion, the court found that Plaintiff lacked standing to challenge the Plan’s failure to comply with disclosure requirements, as she lacked a colorable claim on her suit for benefits.

This case demonstrates the value of thoroughly investigating a claim for benefits, and documenting the investigation. What plaintiffs say in court filings or claims for benefits is not always consistent with what they say in other arenas. This decision shows that courts are willing to consider evidence that plaintiffs’ social media or internet presence can disprove their claims to be totally disabled or otherwise unable to work.

By: Amanda Sonneborn and Jules Levenson

Seyfarth Synopsis: Court excludes evidence of Social Security disability award issued after the final decision issued on plaintiff’s claim for plan disability benefits.  The decision accentuates the importance of fighting to limit the evidence before a Court on review of a plan administrator’s decision.

Just like football is a game of inches, a recent case from the Northern District of Ohio reminds us that the outcome of a denial-of-benefits appeal can sometimes turn on quirks of timing.  In Folds v. Liberty Life Assurance Co., the Plaintiff had successfully sought benefits for his Crohn’s disease under his own-occupation disability plan and had been receiving benefits for 10 months when Defendant questioned his continuing eligibility and ultimately determined that he was no longer eligible for benefits. No. 15-CV-00354, 2016 WL 5661615 (N.D. Ohio September 30, 2016).

Plaintiff unsuccessfully then appealed twice, with his second appeal being decided only four days before the Social Security Administration awarded him benefits. Id. at *6.  He then sued claiming that the denial of benefits was arbitrary and capricious, based in part on the failure to consider the SSA decision, as well as a host of other reasons, including failure to conduct an independent medical exam, reliance on Defendant’s own physicians’ file review, failure to consider a letter from Plaintiff’s primary care physician and failure to consider a vocational report.

In a significant victory for Defendant, the Court struck the SSA decision because it had been issued after the conclusion of the appeal process and was therefore not part of the administrative record. In light of this ruling, the Court refused to consider the SSA decision, which had been submitted by Plaintiff to “show how a neutral body would analyze the very same set of facts,” holding that that the decision was not properly before the Court. Id. 

This case serves as a victory for plan administrators who often engage in heated battles with plaintiffs who seek to ever expand the scope of administrative records.  The decision here can be used by administrators as strong support for the proposition that courts should only consider the evidence before the administrators at the time of decision when reviewing those administrator’s decisions.