Articles Tagged with ERISA

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In an ERISA disability case, an insurance company cannot deny a claim without any explanations. Instead, under 29 U.S.C. §1133, it has to provide written notice of the “specific reasons” for the denial, and it must allow a “full and fair review” of any denial, i.e., an administrative appeal.

An important regulation from the United States Department of Labor provides some guidance on §1133.  Specifically, 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503–1 (the “claims procedure regulation”) requires, in part, that any denial of a claim include the following information:

(1) The specific reason or reasons for the denial;

(2) Specific reference to pertinent plan provisions on which the denial is based;

(3) A description of any additional material or information necessary for the claimant to perfect the claim and an explanation of why such material or information is necessary; and

(4) Appropriate information as to the steps to be taken if the participant or beneficiary wishes to submit his or her claim for review.

The claims procedure regulation, in particular, provides notable protections for claimants:  An insurance company must not only explain its reasons for denial, but also, it must inform the claimant what information or documents he or she needs to submit in order to appeal.  The insurance company also cannot withhold important documents from the claimant.  For example, in Hamall-Desai v. Fortis Benefits Ins. Co. (N.D. Ga. 2004), the district court held that the requirement of a “full and fair review” of a denial meant that the insurance company had to provide the claimant with copies of all the documents, records and other information it relied on in making its decision to deny the claim. The court explained that, by failing to provide this information, the insurance company prevented the  claimant from preparing an adequate appeal because she could not respond to the evidence the insurance company used to support its decision.

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If you’re making a disability insurance claim, the type of plan you have may matter more than any other fact in your case.  Consider, for example, two plaintiffs who have the same occupation and suffer from the exact same disability, only Plaintiff “A” has an employer-provided plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), while Plaintiff “B” has an individual long-term disability policy.  Plaintiff A may have a far more difficult time collecting her disability benefits.

The reason is straightforward: In an ERISA case, the standard of review (the amount of deference a court will give to a plan administrator’s denial) is high and the plaintiff must show that the denial of benefits by the plan administrator was “arbitrary and capricious.”  Making matters more difficult for our Plaintiff A, the court will usually examine only the record which was before the plan administrator in determining whether the plan administrator’s decision should be overturned.

In contrast, a claim brought under an individual disability policy for failure to pay benefits is a claim which will be brought pursuant to the Tennessee common law of breach of contract.  Therefore, Plaintiff A can take her case all the way to a jury decision by merely showing that there is a triable issue as to whether she suffers from a disability as defined in her policy.