Justia U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in ERISA
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The case involves pension plan participants, Evelyn Wilson and Stephen Bafford, who alleged that the plan administrator, the Administrative Committee of the Northrop Grumman Pension Plan, violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by not providing pension benefit statements automatically or on request, and by providing inaccurate pension benefit statements prior to their retirements. The district court initially dismissed the case, but on appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and vacated in part the dismissal, allowing the plaintiffs to file amended complaints.Upon remand, the plaintiffs filed amended complaints, but the district court dismissed their claims again. The plaintiffs appealed once more to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit held that the lower court's prior mandate did not preclude the plaintiffs from pleading their claim for violation of ERISA on remand. The court also held that the plaintiffs stated a viable claim under ERISA by alleging that the plan administrator provided substantially inaccurate pension benefit statements.The court rejected the administrator’s argument that there were no remedies available for the ERISA violations the plaintiffs alleged. As a result, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "BAFFORD V. ADMINISTRATIVE CMTE. OF THE NORTHROP GRUMMAN PLAN" on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, Ryan S., filed a class action lawsuit against UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and its subsidiaries (collectively, “UnitedHealthcare”) under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). He alleged that UnitedHealthcare applies a more stringent review process to benefits claims for outpatient, out-of-network mental health and substance use disorder (“MH/SUD”) treatment than to otherwise comparable medical/surgical treatment. Ryan S. asserted that by doing so, UnitedHealthcare violated the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (“Parity Act”), breached its fiduciary duty, and violated the terms of his plan.The district court granted UnitedHealthcare’s motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based primarily on its conclusions that Ryan S. failed to allege that his claims had been “categorically” denied and insufficiently identified analogous medical/surgical claims that he had personally submitted and UnitedHealthcare had processed more favorably.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part the district court’s judgment. The panel concluded that Ryan S. adequately stated a claim for a violation of the Parity Act. The panel explained that an ERISA plan can violate the Parity Act in different ways, including by applying, as Ryan S. alleged here, a more stringent internal process to MH/SUD claims than to medical/surgical claims. The panel also concluded that Ryan S. alleged a breach of fiduciary duty. However, as Ryan S. failed to identify any specific plan terms that the alleged practices would violate, the panel affirmed the dismissal of his claims based on a violation of the terms of his plan. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Ryan S. v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc." on Justia Law

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In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of an ERISA action brought by South Coast Specialty Surgery Center, Inc. against Blue Cross of California, d/b/a Anthem Blue Cross.South Coast, a healthcare provider, sought reimbursement from Blue Cross for the costs of medical services provided to its patients. South Coast argued that although it was not a plan participant or a beneficiary under ERISA, it had the right to enforce ERISA's protections directly because its patients had assigned it the right to sue for the non-payment of plan benefits via an "Assignment of Benefits" form. The district court disagreed and dismissed South Coast's suit, concluding that the form only conveyed the right to receive direct payment from Anthem, and not the right to sue for non-payment of plan benefits.The Ninth Circuit held that a healthcare provider can enforce ERISA's protections if it has received a valid assignment of rights. The court determined that South Coast's patients had effectuated a valid assignment through the "Assignment of Benefits" form. Therefore, South Coast had the right to seek payment of benefits and to sue for non-payment. The court reversed the lower court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "SOUTH COAST SPECIALTY SURGERY CENTER, INC. V. BLUE CROSS OF CALIFORNIA" on Justia Law

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United Behavioral Health (“UBH”) appeals from the district court’s judgment finding it liable to classes of Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. Section 1001 et seq. (“ERISA”) Plaintiffs under 29 U.S.C. Sections 1132(a)(1)(B) and (a)(3), as well as several pre- and posttrial orders, including class certification, summary judgment, and a remedies order. UBH contends on appeal that Plaintiffs lack Article III standing and that the district court erred at class certification and trial in several respect.   The Ninth Circuit reversed in part. The panel held that Plaintiffs had Article III standing to bring their claims. Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged a concrete injury as to their fiduciary duty claim because UBH’s alleged violation presented a material risk of harm to plaintiffs’ interest in their contractual benefits. Plaintiffs also alleged a concrete injury as to the denial of benefits claim. Further, plaintiffs alleged a particularized injury as to both claims because UBH’s Level of Care Guidelines and Coverage Determination Guidelines for making medical necessity or coverage determinations materially affected each Plaintiff. And Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries were “fairly traceable” to UBH’s conduct. The panel held that the district court did not err in certifying the three classes to pursue the fiduciary duty claim, but the panel reversed the district court’s certification of the denial of benefits classes. The panel held that, on the merits, the district court erred to the extent it determined that the ERISA plans required the Guidelines to be coextensive with generally accepted standards of care. View "DAVID WIT, ET AL V. UNITED BEHAVIORAL HEALTH" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs brought this class action against the Plan’s administrator, AT&T Services, Inc., and the committee responsible for some of the Plan’s investment-related duties, the AT&T Benefit Plan Investment Committee (collectively, “AT&T”). Plaintiffs alleged that AT&T failed to investigate and evaluate all the compensation that the Plan’s recordkeeper, Fidelity Workplace Services, received from mutual funds through BrokerageLink, Fidelity’s brokerage account platform, and from Financial Engines Advisors, L.L.C. Plaintiffs alleged that (1) AT&T’s failure to consider this compensation rendered its contract with Fidelity a “prohibited transaction” under ERISA Section 406, (2) AT&T breached its fiduciary duty of prudence by failing to consider this compensation, and (3) AT&T breached its duty of candor by failing to disclose this compensation to the Department of Labor.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Defendants. The panel reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the prohibited transaction claim. Relying on the statutory text, regulatory text, and the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration’s explanation for a regulatory amendment, the panel held that the broad scope of Section 406 encompasses arm’s-length transactions. The panel held that the broad scope of § 406 encompasses arm’s-length transactions. Disagreeing with other circuits, the panel concluded that AT&T, by amending its contract with Fidelity to incorporate the services of BrokerageLink and Financial Engines, caused the Plan to engage in a prohibited transaction. The panel remanded for the district court to consider whether AT&T met the requirements for an exemption from the prohibited transaction bar. View "ROBERT BUGIELSKI, ET AL V. AT&T SERVICES, INC., ET AL" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, current and former employees of RingCentral, participated in RingCentral’s employee welfare benefits plan. The plan participated in the “Tech Benefits Program” administered by Sequoia Benefits and Insurance Services, LLC, a management and insurance brokerage company. The Tech Benefits Program was a MEWA that pooled assets from employer-sponsored plans into a trust fund for the purpose of obtaining insurance benefits for employees at large-group rates. Plaintiffs filed this putative class action on behalf of the RingCentral plan and other Tech Benefits Program participants, asserting that Sequoia owed fiduciary duties to the plan under ERISA because Sequoia allegedly exercised control over plan assets through its operation of the Tech Benefits Program. Plaintiffs alleged that Sequoia violated its fiduciary duties by receiving and retaining commission payments from insurers, which Plaintiffs regarded as kickbacks, and by negotiating allegedly excessive administrative fees with insurers, leading to higher commissions for Sequoia.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal for lack of Article III standing. The court held that Plaintiffs failed to establish Article III standing as to either of their two theories of injury. The panel held, as to the out-of-pocket-injury theory, Plaintiffs failed to establish the injury in fact required for Article III standing because their allegations did not demonstrate that they paid higher contributions because of Sequoia’s allegedly wrongful conduct. And Plaintiffs failed to plead the third element, that their injury would likely be redressed by judicial relief. View "RACHAEL WINSOR, ET AL V. SEQUOIA BENEFITS & INSURANCE, ET AL" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs submitted health plan coverage requests, which United Behavioral Health (“UBH”) denied. Plaintiffs brought claims under ERISA for breach of fiduciary duty and improper denial of benefits. The parties stipulated to a sample class, from which they submitted a sample of health insurance plans. Plaintiffs alleged that the plans provided coverage for treatment consistent with generally accepted standards of case (“GASC”) or were governed by state laws specifying certain criteria for making coverage or medical necessity determinations. Plaintiffs alleged that UBH’s Level of Care Guidelines and Coverage Determination Guidelines for making these determinations were more restrictive than GASC and were also more restrictive than state-mandated criteria. The district court certified three classes, conducted a bench trial, and entered judgment in Plaintiffs’ favor. The district court issued declaratory and injunctive relief, directed the implementation of court-determined claims processing guidelines, ordered “reprocessing” of all class members’ claims in accordance with the new guidelines, and appointed a special master to oversee compliance for ten years.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The panel held that Plaintiffs had Article III standing to bring their breach of fiduciary duty and improper denial of benefits claims. And the district court did not err in certifying three classes to pursue the fiduciary duty claim. However, because Plaintiffs expressly declined to make any showing, or seek a determination of, their entitlement to benefits, permitting Plaintiffs to proceed with their denial of benefits claim under the guise of a “reprocessing” remedy on a class-wide basis violated the Rules Enabling Act. View "DAVID WIT, ET AL V. UNITED BEHAVIORAL HEALTH" on Justia Law

Posted in: Class Action, ERISA
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Plaintiff challenged Lincoln’s denial of her claim for long-term disability benefits. On de novo review, the district court affirmed Lincoln’s denial of Plaintiff's claim, but it adopted new rationales that the ERISA plan administrator did not rely on during the administrative process. Specifically, the district court found for the first time that Plaintiff was not credible and that she had failed to supply objective evidence to support her claim.The Ninth Circuit held that when a district court reviews de novo a plan administrator’s denial of benefits, it examines the administrative record without deference to the administrator’s conclusions to determine whether the administrator erred in denying benefits. The district court’s task is to determine whether the plan administrator’s decision is supported by the record, not to engage in a new determination of whether the claimant is disabled. Accordingly, the district court must examine only the rationales the plan administrator relied on in denying benefits and cannot adopt new rationales that the claimant had no opportunity to respond to during the administrative process.Here, the district court erred because it relied on new rationales to affirm the denial of benefits. View "VICKI COLLIER V. LINCOLN LIFE ASSURANCE COMPANY" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff's son died in a single-vehicle collision. At the time, he was intoxicated and driving the wrong way on a one-way road. The accidental death and dismemberment insurance policy obtained from defendant Life Insurance Company of North America (LINA) by the plaintiff via his employer paid benefits for a “Covered Accident,” defined as “[a] sudden, unforeseeable, external event that results, directly and independently of all other causes.”Applying the Padfield test, Padfield v. AIG Life Ins. Co., 290 F.3d 1121 (9th Cir. 2002), the son’s death was an “accident” because, while the facts demonstrated that the son engaged in reckless conduct, the record did not show that his death was “substantially certain” to result from that conduct. Thus, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's finding. View "SCOTT WOLF V. INS. CO. OF N. AMERICA" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs brought this action against the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan (the “Plan”) and the Plan’s Board of Directors under Section 502(a)(1)(B) and § 502(a)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). Plaintiff is a participant in the Plan. The remaining co-Plaintiffs are covered dependents of Norman.   Plaintiff was a participant in the Plan. After his daughter, a covered dependent, was injured in a car accident, the Plan paid benefits to cover a portion of her medical expenses. Under the Plan’s terms, Plaintiff was liable to the Plan for the reimbursement of these benefits if the daughter recovered the money from the third party who caused her injuries. Although the daughter obtained such a recovery, she dissipated her settlement funds without reimbursing the Plan, and Plaintiff did not pay the reimbursement amount himself.   The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Plaintiffs in an action against the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan and the Plan’s Board of Directors, alleging violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, and remanded with instructions for the district court to enter summary judgment in favor of the Plan.   Reversing, the court concluded that contractual defenses could not defeat the clear and unambiguous terms setting forth the Plan’s self-help remedy. Assuming without deciding that plaintiffs could invoke the equitable doctrines of illegality, impossibility of performance, and unconscionability, the panel concluded that these defenses could not override the terms of the Plan under the facts in this case. View "LENAI MULL V. MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY HEALTH" on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA