The Interaction of LaRue, Bruch, and MetLife v. Glenn
The Supreme Court seems to have an increasing interest in addressing some of the long-standing remedial and procedural issues under ERISA. It recently decided one case, LaRue v. DeWolff, and there was a BNA blog and several comments about that. I agree with much of what was written on the blog, but I take issue with an interpretation of either ERISA or the Supreme Court's decision that would undercut the application of the benefit disputes/claims administrative process to issues that emanate from the combination of plan provisions and apparent administrative errors (such as found in LaRue). Although a failure to follow plan provisions can indeed be a fiduciary breach because of the requirement of Section 404(a)(1)(D) that fiduciaries operate the plan in accordance with governing documents (something that obviously a fiduciary must do). However, taken to its extreme, that would mean that every benefit miscalculation claim could be turned into a fiduciary breach, raise a 502(a)(2) claim, and undercut the exhaustion requirement for 502(a)(1)(B) claims. The better interpretation is to require exhaustion in LaRue and similar matters unless the participant can show futility. Once the matter has been through the administrative claim process, if the participant is still unhappy because the claim has been denied in whole or part, then he/she can proceed to litigation and presumably raise both 502(a)(1)(B) and 502(a)(2), although defendants may challenge the latter claim. Now, the issue is what should the court's standard of review be. That leads to another case the Supreme Court is currently considering, MetLife v. Glenn.
In that case, the Court will evaluate and determine what the standard should be in situations where the administrator (who is deciding the claim and/or appeal) is both the decision maker and will pay for any benefit. That would be particularly relevant regarding insured welfare plans where the insurance company makes all the decisions as well as self-insured welfare plans and presumably qualified plans where the sponsor/administrator decides the claim and appeal, makes some or all of the contributions and would be fully or partially liable if the claim was granted. The Solicitor of Labor has filed an amicus brief in the MetLife case arguing that a conflict of an administrator should be weighed as a factor in determining the reasonableness of a benefit determination. The Solicitor argues that all the circumstances should be weighed in considering how much, if any, deference should be given to the administrator's denial of the benefit claim. In this particular case, the Solicitor concludes that MetLife did abuse its discretion and argues that the Sixth Circuit's decision in plaintiff's favor should be upheld. Forgetting the merits of the particular case, the effective standard for evaluating abuse or arbitrary and capricious conduct seems to make sense and certainly offers key procedural and substantive protections for participants. It also underscores why it makes sense under a remedial statute such as ERISA for LaRue type claims to first go through the administrative processes before pursuing litigation. If an administrative denial is based on a sound, objective process, then deference makes sense. If not, the Solicitor's argument and the Sixth Circuit's decision in MetLife reflect the expected procedural result of limiting deference.
Now some have argued that it is meaningless for LaRue type claims to have to exhaust administrative remedies because ultimately there is no one to fund the benefit regarding a claim for loss under a 401(k) plan. But that is not really the case. Assuming the sponsor administers the claim and appeal process, any favorable decision will be funded by the sponsor. Assuming some outside person or entity administers the process, the sponsor would still be required to fund the lost benefit (if the participant is upheld) in accordance with the administrator's determination of what the plan provides or requires (which should effectively bind the sponsor). If the participant's claim is denied, then a court will ultimately determine the scope of review (i.e. the application of deference or not) and whether the participant's claim is upheld.
The courts are already clogged with a myriad of litigation on countless subjects. It makes no sense to turn every benefit denial or administrative error immediately into a federal lawsuit without, at least, attempting to pursue participant rights through the administrative review process. If that process is not administered in an objective and responsible manner, then it should be reformed and its decisions will not be upheld by courts until it is. Undoubtedly, plan sponsors want participants to have to exhaust any administrative processes before pursuing litigation. Perhaps, sometimes this desire is motivated by a true intent to resolve the matter in what it considers to be a fair and responsible way consistent with plan documents, etc. And, perhaps, in other situations, this desire is to construct a better litigation defense. However, regardless of its motivation, if its process is not fair and responsible, its decisions are not likely to be accorded deference. On the other hand, presumably, plaintiffs' counsel would prefer not to have to pursue the claim and appeal process because, if it is administered as it should be and denies the claim, then courts will normally give deference to its decisions. And, quite frankly, that is as it should be under the ERISA scheme and years worth of court decisions post Bruch v. Firestone. LaRue should not be used to effectively or indirectly overrule Bruch.