ERISA Claim Defense Blog

On July 1, 2021, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor, and Treasury (together, “the Departments”), and the Office of Personnel Management, issued Requirements Related to Surprise Billing; Part I (Interim Final Rules (IFR) with Request for Comments).  This is the first set of regulations implementing the federal No Surprises Act (NSA), which was enacted as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

Medicare and Medicaid already prohibit surprise billing/balance billing, and the NSA extends this protection to patients insured through employer-based and individual health plans. The NSA applies to fully insured and self-insured group health plans, including grandfathered plans, but they do not apply to excepted benefits (such as limited-scope dental and vision plans, and most health flexible spending arrangements), or to health reimbursement arrangements.

To be considered, written comments to the IFR must be received by 5 p.m. on September 7, 2021If the agency is persuaded by any of the comments and so chooses, the rule can be amended in light of those comments.

ERISA-covered plans hold millions of dollars or more in assets and maintain a large amount of personal data on participants, therefore, such plans can be tempting targets for cyber-criminals. Recognizing this, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) of the U.S. Department of Labor issued its first-ever cybersecurity guidance concerning employee benefit plans this spring.  Further, in June 2021, just two months after issuing the guidance, government investigators began seeking information from plan sponsors about cybersecurity policies and procedures.  While such requests thus far have been limited to ongoing audits, plan sponsors and fiduciaries would be wise to review EBSA’s guidance and implement its suggestions as appropriate.

The EBSA guidance, which is directed to plan sponsors and fiduciaries as well as recordkeepers and plan participants, is set forth in three separate publications.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration issued Information Letter 06-14-2021 stating that 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1 requires plan fiduciaries to disclose, on request, recordings and/or transcripts of phone calls between the claimant and the fiduciary, even if the recording was made only for quality assurance purposes.

EBSA summarized the request:

You are seeking guidance because you represent a claimant whose request for such a recording was denied. You indicate that the stated reasons for denial of the request for the audio recording are that the actual recording is distinct from the notes made available to you, which contemporaneously documented the content of the recorded conversation, and which became part of the “claim activity history through which [the insurer] develops, tracks and administers the claim.” By contrast, the denial stated that the “recordings are for ‘quality assurance purposes,’” and “are not created, maintained, or relied upon for claim administration purposes, and therefore are not part of the administrative record.”

Though there are many legal complexities that can arise in a typical ERISA lawsuit, one thing that is typically not in dispute is whether there is an ERISA Plan at issue. Pension plans, 401(k) plans, health plans, and group insurance plans are all easy to spot, categorize and confirm as ERISA plans. There are outliers, to be sure, like when the plan is established or maintained by a possibly exempt employer (like a religious organization, community college,  or Native American tribe). Or when the plan allows employees to purchase individual insurance policies at a discount. Or when the dispute involves a severance plan, as is demonstrated by Atkins v. CB&I, L.L.C., No. 20-30004, 2021 WL 1085807 (5th Cir. Mar. 22, 2021).

In Atkins, the defendant construction company established a Project Completion Incentive Plan (“PCIP”) that would pay eligible employees a bonus of 5% of their earnings while they worked on a particular construction project, if they stayed on the project until their work was completed. The plaintiffs, who acknowledged that they were not eligible for bonuses because they quit before their work on the project ended, sued in Louisiana state court, arguing that the PCIP involved a wage forfeiture that was illegal under Louisiana law. The employer removed the case to federal court on the grounds of ERISA complete preemption, and the district court agreed that ERISA governed. As the Fifth Circuit noted, “[t]hat jurisdictional determination also resolved the merits” because, if ERISA governs, “then everyone agrees the Plaintiffs do not have a claim” because ERISA preempts Louisiana law, and because the plaintiffs “are not eligible for the bonus under the terms of the plan.”

The Fifth Circuit held that the PCIP was not an ERISA plan.

In Connecticut General Life Ins. Co. v. BioHealth Labs., Inc., No. 20-2312-CV,  — F.3d –, 2021 WL 476111 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2021), Cigna, as administrator of employee health plans, sued six  out-of-network lab companies for various fraudulent billing schemes, including fee forgiveness (not charging the patient for co-insurance, co-pays, etc.), unnecessary testing, and unbundling (separately billing for services that should be combined at a lower rate). In all, Cigna sought to recover $17 million in fraudulent or improper charges.

Cigna had completed its investigation that uncovered the alleged fraud in 2015, and began to deny payment of claims submitted by the labs. Two of the labs sued Cigna in Florida, but that action was dismissed and closed in 2017 for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Cigna then sued the labs in Connecticut District Court in 2019, asserting “a variety of Connecticut state-law and federal claims,” all of which, according to Cigna, would have been compulsory counterclaims in the Florida action, had it not been dismissed. The district court dismissed the Connecticut complaint on the ground that all claims were time-barred under Connecticut’s three-year statute of limitations for tort claims.

The Second Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part.

On February 26, 2021, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) released Notice 2021-01 (2021 Relief Notice) providing guidance to employers, claim administrators and fiduciaries of ERISA plans on the duration of the COVID-19-related relief set forth in a 2020 Notice that suspended, among other things, certain ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) claim-related deadlines (referred

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

Disputes over the meaning of a word or phrase in an insured benefit plan almost always end up with the litigants feeling like they have gone through the looking glass to a place where the words you thought you understood all your life suddenly mean something entirely different.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is Carlile v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., — F.3d –, 2021 WL 671582 (10th Cir, Feb. 22, 2021), where the dispute revolved around whether Mr. Carlile was an “active, Full-time Employee” when he became disabled.

Mr. Carlile had worked for the disability plan sponsor for about four years when he was given notice in March 2016, that he was being laid off as part of a reduction in force effective June 20, 2016. Accompanying the notice was a lump-sum payment of his wages for the notice period, and the confirmation that he no longer needed to come into work. Apparently, though, he continued to visit the office “at his convenience” until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer on May 31, 2016. Apparently his “last day of work” (whatever that means) was June 7, 2016. He filed a claim for LTD benefits, which Reliance Standard denied, finding that Mr. Carlile’s participation in the disability plan had terminated before June 7, because he was no longer an “active, Full-time Employee.”

Follow us through the looking glass as we watch the Tenth Circuit explore: why the meaning of “active, Full-time Employee” is not influenced at all by the plan’s definitions of “Actively at Work” or “Active Work;” why the court’s own prior decision defining “actively at work full time” in a similar context supported Reliance only “at first glance”; and why determining how much an employee worked during his “regular work week” apparently does not require proof of how much the employee ever really worked at all. At the end of the journey, it turns out that “active” really means nothing, because an “active, Full-time Employee” is exactly the same as a “Full-time Employee.”

Katherine M. Katchen

We are please to welcome Katherine M. Katchen as counsel in Robinson+Cole’s Managed Care + Employee Benefits Litigation Group. Kate has more than 20 years of litigation experience representing clients in complex commercial litigation matters, particularly in the area of managed care and insurance. She will be resident

Plaintiffs seeking recovery of group disability benefits under ERISA-governed plans routinely argue that claim fiduciaries failed to adequately consider and/or account for decisions by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to award Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. As a result, federal courts are regularly tasked with evaluating the substance and sufficiency of discussions of SSDI awards (that are made a part of the administrative record) in adverse benefit determination letters.