More States Dump "Deference"

Texas has now joined New York in trying to level the playing field for their ERISA disability income insurance claimants. Both states have proposed new regulations designed to negate the deference courts give to insurance companies in deciding disability income cases under ERISA.

If the regulations are finalized and become law, New York and Texas will join more than 20 other states in giving their citizens an even chance to prove their right to disability benefits.

These problems started with the case of Firestone v Bruch, 489 U.S, 101, when the U.S. Supreme Court found that, under the court’s interpretation of trust law, ERISA plans could be written so that discretion is given to claims administrator’s in deciding claims, and courts would then be obliged to give deference to the administrator’s findings.

This led to the concept of “arbitrary and capricious” review in ERISA disability cases. Under Bruch, the administrator’s denial of a claim would be upheld unless the claimant could show that the denial was “arbitrary and capricious”, a term of art in the law. This rule raised a mountain in the path of the claimant. If there was any reasonable basis for the denial, it would be upheld, no matter how compelling the claimant’s contrary evidence might be.

The major problem with giving deference is that the administrator is many times the insurer who pays the claim. So, if the administrator approves the claim, it also has to pay the claim out of its own funds. This deference power in a conflict of interest situation would try the moral fiber of an angel. So, you can imagine what it does to insurance companies which are far from angels!

There have been many examples of how this conflict works against disabled employees, including the most infamous one – the Unum 49-state investigation of its claims handling practices, which led to a large settlement with Unum and the reopening for review of more than 220,000 Unum case disability income denials.

What makes this deference requirement of Bruch even more problematic for claimants is the principle of preemption which makes federal law completely controlling over state law in ERISA matters. Courts have held that states have very little to say in these cases, with one big exception – states have the right to determine the language of insurance policies in their jurisdiction. In policy language, state word is law.

As a result, many states which object to insurance companies getting the upper hand over their citizens because of Bruch, have banned the use of discretionary language which favors insurers, in approving the policy forms used in their state.

One would think that every state would look out for its people in this way, especially when it takes so little effort.

What is surprising is that about half of the states haven’t done it yet, leaving the insurers with the upper hand against their own people.