Many of the “rules” governing ERISA claims are not contained in the statute itself, but rather are the result of judicial decisions interpreting ERISA. In the landmark case of Firestone v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of an ERISA fiduciary (including insurance companies!) to reserve “discretion” to decide eligibility for benefits under an ERISA plan. When “discretion” is granted to an insurance company or a claims administrator, a reviewing court does not decide whether or not the claimant is entitled to benefits under an insurance policy. Instead, a court is limited to deciding whether the insurance company abused its discretion or acted “unreasonably” when deciding the claim. Under this standard of review, some courts have concluded they are compelled to uphold the insurer’s decision merely because there was some medical support for the decision. See, Carlo B v. Blue Cross Blue Shield, 2010 WL 1257755 (D. Utah, 2010 (It does not matter whether the Court agrees with the insurer or its physicians. The decision need not be the only logical decision or even the best one.)
After years of unfair decisions under this standard of review, some states, including California, have taken action. Effective January 1, 2012, the California legislature outlawed discretion in policies. California Insurance Code, Section 10110.6. The statute applies to any policy which “issued or renewed” after January 1, 2012 and which covered residents of California. What this means is that courts can now actually look at the evidence and decide for themselves whether they think an insured person is entiteld to benefits. This is called a “de novo” proceeding, meaning the court will look at the evidence “anew” instead of deferring to what the insurance company decided. (See one of our earlier blogs for more info: http://www.californiainsurancelawyerblog.com/2015/03/california_insurance_code_sect_1.html )
Insurance companies such as MetLife, Liberty Life, Prudential and others have tried making all kinds of arguments to avoid the impact of section 10110.6. Application of the statute can depend on the facts of the case, but, since January 1, 2012, Kantor & Kantor has been successful in persuading many Federal Judges, and even insurance company lawyers, to invalidate or ignore grants of discretion written into insurance plans. A number of other experienced ERISA practitioners have also been successful in this argument. To date, the statute has been applied in at least 15 court decisions in California.