Be Careful With ERISA


A recent decision of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals underscores a couple of issues of interest to ERISA claimants and attorneys:

* You just can’t “wing’ it when your legal right is created by a statute.
* Even a seemingly minor procedural miscue by a claimant can get the claim booted out of court, with prejudice.

In Edwards v. Briggs & Stratton,2011 WL 1602061, a claimant was 11 days late in filing her disability appeal with her plan administrator even though there had been ongoing communication between her and the administrator. The administrator rejected her appeal on “lateness” grounds and the Federal District Court and Seventh Circuit agreed, taking the position that the failure to file on time constituted a failure to exhaust administrative remedies and dismissing the case with prejudice.

We are all familiar with attorneys advertising their experience in their particular practice area, and why clients need that experience. Some of those claims are valid and some are pure advertising hype. The Edwards case demonstrates that such a claim is valid in ERISA matters.

In Edwards, the court found that Ms. Edwards made several procedural errors which “deep-sixed” her claim. She was late in advising that she intended to appeal, and also in providing certain information required for her claim. Although, it might seem obvious to an ordinary observer that she was appealing a decision of the plan administrator, she did not make her intentions absolutely clear, with this “wiggle” room, the administrator and, ultimately, the court, found that she had not actually appealed within the time frame required by Federal regulations, and, therefore, she had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. The court dismissed her claim with prejudice.

Although the court could have exercised discretion and give her some leeway since she was only 11 days late in providing what the court was looking for, the court withheld its discretion and dismissed her case with prejudice.

This case illustrates that ERISA law is one of those areas in which experience is generally a “must”. ERISA disability claims are created by statute. ERISA regulations promulgated by the Department of Labor along with the statute itself, cover thousands of pages in the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.

It is a “picky” law which starts off giving the plan administrator deference in decisions. We have to assume that administrators will always give themselves and the plan the benefit of doubt, so a claimant a starts off behind the 8-ball.

Add to this the regulatory time limits and other technical requirements which must be met to pursue a claim, and it’s easy to see how those, unfamiliar with the timing and format of claims, can trip over the requirements. And, once they trip, as shown in Edwards, they may be out forever.

Much about ERISA is counterintuitive, so just exercising sound, common sense judgment, will not always win the day for a claimant. We don’t mean to enshrine ERISA claims work in some kind of voodoo mysticism, but we do mean to point out that ERISA practice requires more than a cursory reading of a few sections of the ERISA statute and regulations to become proficient.

If one prosecutes ERISA disability insurance claims, one needs a decent knowledge of other statutes which affect claims, such as HIPPA and COBRA. Experience and a good working knowledge of general insurance law are also a plus. It is not enough to just prove a medical disability in a disability income insurance matter. The claimant must also show that the disability prevents the claimant from performing the duties of his or her usual occupation. Sometimes the policy will require proof that the claimant is unable to perform the duties of almost any occupation.

As the Edwards decision shows, ERISA litigation should not be a hit or miss undertaking, where a claimant or an attorney can read a few cases to “get the feel of it” and then go winging along to a successful conclusion.

What you don’t know about ERISA can kill your claim. Just ask Augusta Edwards.



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