The "Sole" Of Discretion

Lawyers sometimes have a habit of using more words than necessary. Many times this just bores the audience. Sometimes, it really, really hurts.

A case in point is the rule banning the use of the discretionary clause in health insurance policies in New Jersey. Discretionary clauses have been used by courts since the 1980s to require ERISA claimants to show that disability income claim denials by employers and insurance companies are “arbitrary and capricious” before the merits of the claim can be considered. This sea change in ERISA jurisprudence was based upon the Supreme Court decision in Firestone v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989).

In 2006, the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance responded to our request to do something about this unfair burden on plaintiffs in a relatively prompt manner for a state agency. (As an aside, it has taken the State of New York years longer to respond).

But, in drafting the regulation, the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance felt it necessary to insert the unnecessary word “sole” before the word “discretion”, and to add language about review which accomplishes nothing as the law now stands. So, now the regulation (N.J.A.C. 11:4-58.3) reads as follows:

“ No individual or group health insurance policy or contract, individual or group life insurance policy or contract, individual or group long-term care insurance policy or contract, or annuity contract, delivered or issued for delivery in this State may contain a provision purporting to reserve sole discretion to the carrier to interpret the terms of the policy or contract, or to provide standards of interpretation or review that are inconsistent with the laws of this State. A carrier may include a provision stating that the carrier has the discretion to make an initial interpretation as to the terms of the policy or contract, but that such interpretation can be reversed by an internal utilization review organization, a court of law, arbitrator or administrative agency having jurisdiction.”

Why is it worded this way? Who knows? The word “sole” adds nothing and opens wide the door to confusion.

When we first saw the proposed regulation, we thought that the word “sole” was unnecessary and was very likely to cause a problem in the courts. We wrote to the Department of Banking and Insurance and objected to this language – to no avail. So, the word “sole” remained in the regulation, lying in wait for some poor claimant to fall prey to its tendency to confuse.

Lo and behold – it happened.

In the case of Evans v. Employee Benefit Plan, et als, 2009 WL 418628 (3rd Cir. 2009), which was decided on other grounds, the Court posited that the New Jersey ban on giving deference in insurance policy language only applied to policies which gave “sole” discretion to the administrator. Since the policy language used only the word “discretion” and did not use the word “sole”, the Court reasoned that the regulation would not apply, even though the policy gave no discretion to make decisions to any other person or entity!

What is “discretion” but the authority to decide an issue? If you are the only one with authority to decide an issue, what can the word “sole” add to your power of discretion? If more than one person has discretion to decide an issue, then none of them, alone, has discretion without the other(s).

As we had previously pointed out to the NJ Banking and Insurance Commission when N.J.A.C. 11:4-58.3 was proposed, amendment to N.J.A.C. 11:4-58.3 is required forthwith. The NJ Department made it clear in 2006 that giving deference to the administrator is against public policy. N.J.A.C. 11:4-58.3 was undoubtedly intended to ban the discretionary language from disability income insurance policies in the State. Why let the unnecessary word “sole” cause any confusion so as to threaten the policy rights of New Jersey citizens when they become disabled?

We intend to pursue the issue of amendment with the State until it goes into effect. Otherwise, there will be cases in which New Jersey disability income claimants are deprived of what is due them, because of an unnecessary extra word in the regulation.




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