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Are you Afraid of What Lurks in the Deep Water of your ERISA Plan?

Fear of creatures that lurk in deep water is pretty universal – for confirmation, look no further than the numerous summer movies featuring unexpected attacks by fierce underwater predators with sharp teeth. Inevitably, none of the victims seem to have any tools that will actually save them.  One after another, their tools break, and their escape attempts fail pitifully.  Unfortunately, such movies give the impression that the only protection from these predators is staying out of the water altogether. 

If sponsoring and administering ERISA employee benefit plans seems as dangerous to you as swimming in deep water, be assured that there are tools and approaches that can be vital to risk management. Amending your ERISA plan document and summary plan description to include appropriate plan provisions, for instance, can minimize your exposure as a plan administrator.  For example:

  • Does your plan reserve discretionary authority to the plan administrator?Explicitly reserving discretionary authority to the plan administrator can prevent a court from exercising its own discretion to your detriment. Almost thirty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized the effectiveness of such language; court opinions continue to highlight the importance of this provision, as was done in a recent opinion issued by the Sixth Circuit in Clemons v. Norton Healthcare Inc. Retirement Plan, 890 F.3d 254 (May 10, 2018). Because it is so important, you should not assume that it is automatically included in every plan document and summary plan description. Work with benefits counsel to have your documents reviewed to make sure this provision is included.
  • Does your plan invalidate assignments of claims? Sometimes, a doctor or hospital asks a participant to sign a document that assigns to the provider the participant’s claim for benefits, meaning that the provider can stand in the shoes of the participant in bringing suit against your plan for coverage of claims. An anti-assignment clause invalidates such an assignment. Your plan’s participants and beneficiaries can still bring claims (and suit, if necessary), but they cannot assign such claims to their providers. Such a clause was upheld recently by the Third Circuit in American Orthopedic & Sports Medicine v. Independence Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 2018 WL 2224394 (May 16, 2018).
  • Does your plan contain a plan-based statute of limitations? In ERISA cases, a question about which statute of limitations applies (which, as a practical matter, means how many years later a plaintiff can sue you) can be a complicated issue, involving both state and federal law. Short-circuit those disagreements by amending your plan and summary plan description to establish a reasonable plan-based statute of limitations. Make sure your claims and appeal provisions, and all claim or appeal denial notices, discuss the statute of limitations. For example, a properly drafted plan-based statute of limitations resulted in a dismissal of a lawsuit because a plaintiff failed to bring suit within 3 years of his claim – without that plan provision, the court would have applied Puerto Rico’s default statute of limitations for contract claims, which would have permitted suit within 15 years of the claim. Santaliz-Rioz v. Met. Life Ins. Co., 693 F.3d 57 (1stCir. 2012), cert. denied., 569 U.S. 904 (2013).

When it comes to health and welfare plans, note that, if you do not yet have a plan document and summary plan description, now is the time to get one. Benefit summaries provided by your insurer are helpful and important documents, but they may not contain all the elements required by ERISA.  Moreover, by adopting a plan document and summary plan description, you will have a document to include provisions like those highlighted above.

Having an ERISA attorney review (or draft) your plan document and summary plan description can save you money and headaches down the line. After all, a lawsuit may not be quite as scary as staring into a 75-foot-long prehistoric shark’s open jaws – but do you really want to find out through personal experience?

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About this Author

Jamie Leary, Corporation, ERISA, Employee Benefits, Steptoe Johnson Law FIrm
Of Counsel

Jamie Leary counsels corporate clients on a wide variety of ERISA and employee benefits issues. She drafts plan documents and employee communications for retirement plans, including defined benefit pension plans, 401(k)/profit sharing plans, and ESOPs, as well as welfare plans, including group health plans, health reimbursement account plans, flexible spending account plans, cafeteria plans, and wrap plans. She assists clients with statutory and regulatory compliance, including health care reform, ERISA, HIPAA, COBRA, and Medicare Secondary Payer Act. She advises...

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