Why A Different Rule For ERISA?

A recent decision of a Federal District Court judge in Alabama raises the crucial question of the intent of Congress in passing ERISA and the result of judicial tinkering with ERISA claims. (Edgar v. Disability Reinsurance, 2010 WL 3906651).

Federal Judge William M. Acker, Jr., clearly spells out the issue by pointing out that Firestone v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989) , seems more intent on preserving the willingness of insurance companies to maintain lower premiums for employers, than to afford stricken employees with the help Congress apparently intended them to have.

The issue is important, but the question is: Should the Supreme Court deal with it or should Congress deal with it? Judge Acker points out that the legislation clearly sets forth that a stricken litigant can bring a civil action to recover benefits due under the terms of the plan. Judge Acker differentiates between a “civil action” which he says is mandated by ERISA and a “review” which he claims is mandated many times in ERISA matters by the decision in Firestone.

The argument centers on Federal Rule 56 (summary judgment), which Judge Acker believes is not applicable to ERISA litigation when there is a dispute of material facts cited by the opponent of the motion. Why, in such a situation is summary judgment permitted when no judge would think of allowing it in a non-ERISA civil case where there are disputed facts.

In support of his thinking, Judge Acker relies heavily on Krolnik v. Prudential, 570 F3rd 841, 7th Cir., 2009, in which the court applied contract law to the ERISA case before it, declaring that Firestone does not change the fact that at base, an ERISA dispute is a dispute over the meaning of the language in an insurance policy, which requires the application of contract law.

Judge Acker sets forth the long-standing law of Rule 56 cases:  Only if after all evidence by a non-moving party is considered true, there is still no dispute of a material fact, judgment may be granted to the moving party, if the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

If every other litigant in a Federal District Court is entitled to the benefit of this long-standing interpretation of Rule 56, why aren’t ERISA claimants afforded the same rights? As Judge Acker and Krolnik point out, the issue involves an insurance contract and should be adjudicated according to long-standing insurance law concepts.

To do otherwise indicates an attempt by the courts, with Firestone, to “fix” the legislation. This is not its province. If the legislation, as they wrote it, is actually “broken” in the view of Congress, then Congress should fix it.

For courts to give insurance companies an extra weapon in their already overloaded arsenal (“arbitrary and capricious”) is not the answer. Such a weapon adds a burden to the already overloaded claims wagon the ERISA claimant has to haul.

ERISA indicates clearly that Congress wanted to protect stricken employees. Why did the Supreme Court rebuff this intention by deciding Firestone as it did?


A Must Read "Big Bang" Decision

A decision with the impact of an earthquake on ERISA litigation was handed down yesterday (June 29) by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Krolnik v. Prudential, No. 08-2616.

The ruling called the “de novo review” standard set in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989), a misnomer and suggested that “de novo” be replaced by the word “independent”, with the word “review” replaced by the word “decision”.

In effect, the Court did away with the “kowtow” requirement in ERISA disability income cases which since Firestone v. Bruch seemed to require that the courts must defer to administrative decisions made by plan administrators even where de novo review is appropriate.

In Krolnik, the appeals court ruled that in those cases in which discretion is not granted to the administrator by the ERISA plan, claimants are entitled to a trial on the merits – not just a review of whether the administrator’s decision can be justified based on the record of the administrative hearing below.

Relying on the language in Firestone v. Bruch, the 7th Circuit suggested that litigation by plan participants seeking de novo review of benefit denials under ERISA should be conducted in the same manner as contract litigation, since an ERISA plan and the insurance policy which is to be interpreted are contracts.

The court said, in part, “In a contract suit the judge does not ‘review’ either party’s decision. Instead the court takes evidence (if there is a dispute about a material fact) and makes an independent decision about how the language of the contract applies to those facts”.

This ruling is a blockbuster law changer which should send ERISA claimants and their lawyers scurrying to carefully reread the language of their ERISA policies.

For LTD insurers, it means real litigation in de novo review cases – complete with full discovery, the right to cross-examine witnesses and, perhaps, even some day a jury trial.

The days when ERISA carriers could slide through on the basis of untested, unsubstantiated and unchallengeable medical reports may very well be coming to an end, at least, in de novo review cases.