District Court Applies Abuse of Discretion Standard of Review After Montour

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Recently, in Montour v. Hartford Life & Accident, 582 F.3d 933 (9th Cir. 2009), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in one of its most important cases, adopted a new standard of reviewing ERISA abuse of discretion cases where the insurer has a conflict of interest. The court held that a “modicum of evidence in the record supporting the administrator’s decision will not alone suffice in the face of such a conflict, since this more traditional application of the abuse of discretion standard allowed no room for weighing the extent to which the administrator’s decision may have been motivated by improper considerations.” Further, the court in Montour explained that a reviewing court must also take into account the administrator’s conflict of interest as a factor in the abuse of discretion analysis. This was significant because the appeals court gave a comprehensive description of the “signs of bias” it found were exhibited by Hartford throughout the decision-making process. These included overstatement of and excessive reliance upon Montour’s activities in the surveillance videos; Hartford’s decision to conduct a paper review rather than an “in-person medical evaluation;” Hartford’s insistence that Montour produce objective proof of his pain level; and Hartford’s failure to deal with and distinguish the Social Security Administration’s contrary disability decision. The appeals court also noted Hartford’s “failure to present extrinsic evidence of any effort on its part to ‘assure accurate claims assessment.’”

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