ERISA: Discovery of Claims Procedures to Assess Compliance with DOL Regulations? Not So Fast.

by Lane Powell PC - ERISA Law Blog
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You know that failing to follow Department of Labor (DOL) claims regulations can result in the court using the de novo review standard, rather than the abuse of discretion standard in reviewing claim decisions.

But the court still may apply the abuse of discretion standard: if the plan can establish:

(1) it has procedures in full conformity with DOL regulations, and

(2) its failure to follow regulations was inadvertent and harmless.

So, what is the plan’s BURDEN OF PROOF to establish that it has procedures in conformity with DOL regulations?

And…does Plaintiff get to conduct discovery into claims procedures, and the way you handled the specific claim?

Here’s the recent case of Capretta v. Prudential Ins. Co., 2017 WL 4012058 (S.D.N.Y. August 28, 2017) “[A plan’s] burden to prove compliance with DOL regulations arises, if it ever arises, only after a plaintiff makes a reasonable showing that the defendant violated DOL rules.”)

FACTS: Capretta worked for four years following lung cancer treatment, and sought ERISA-governed long term disability benefits, which were denied. Plaintiff pursued discovery regarding Prudential’s claim procedures and its conduct in handling the specific claim.

ISSUE: Whether Prudential maintained “administrative processes designed to ensure that similarly-situated claimants are treated consistently and in accordance with plan documents?”

HELD:

                 PLAN’S BURDEN OF PROOF.

  1. “District courts have disagreed whether the plan’s burden of proof requires it to demonstrate compliance with the regulation in general, or simply to show that any noncompliance was inadvertent and harmless.” Op. at
  2. “[A plan’s] burden to prove compliance with DOL regulations arises, if it ever arises, only after a plaintiff makes a reasonable showing that the defendant violated DOL rules.” Op. at  (Emph. added)
  3. It would be wrong to require “a plan to prove affirmatively compliance based on the mere allegation that it might have violated the regulations.” (Emph. in original.) Op. at

DISCOVERY OF CLAIMS PROCEDURES DENIED.

  1. “[T]o take discovery outside of the administrative record, a plaintiff challenging a claims decision must show that there is ‘a reasonable chance that the requested discovery will satisfy the good cause requirement.’” Op. at
  2. Plaintiff “must do more than merely claim that [discovery] is needed to determine whether she received a full and fair review.” Op. at
  3. “[E]ven where a plaintiff has sufficiently alleged good cause, discovery requests may not be overly broad or redundant of what is already in the administrative record.” Op. at
  4. Plaintiff fails to show that [Prudential] did not maintain reasonable claims procedures, or explain how [Prudential’s] application of the procedures may have been irregular or noncompliant in this case.” Op. at

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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