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.
 

GOOD RIDDANCE!