In this 2023 ERISA case, the Court held that when reviewing a claim for benefits, an administrator is not required to defer to the opinions of a treating physician. Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 831, 123 S. Ct. 1965, 155 L. Ed. 2d 1034 (2003). However, a reviewer may not arbitrarily refuse to credit such opinions if they constitute reliable evidence from the claimant. Id. at 834. Medical opinions are regularly proffered as proof of a claim, and we have held reviewers “cannot shut their eyes to readily available information . . . [that may] confirm the beneficiary’s theory of entitlement.” Gaither v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 394 F.3d 792, 807 (10th Cir. 2004). Therefore, if United arbitrarily refused to credit and effectively “shut their eyes” to the medical opinions of A.K.’s treating physicians, it acted arbitrarily and capriciously.
United also argues the district court abused its discretion when it awarded A.K. benefits outright. HN20 A court may remand for further administrative review if it determines the administrator’s flawed handling could be cured by a renewed evaluation to address, for example, [*39] a “fail[ure] to make adequate findings or to explain adequately the grounds for a decision.” Caldwell v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 287 F.3d 1276, 1288 (10th Cir. 2002). See also Rekstad v. U.S. Bancorp, 451 F.3d 1114, 1121-22 (10th Cir. 20026) (remanding for plan administrator to examine relevant evidence). By contrast, a court may award benefits when the record shows that benefits should clearly have been awarded by the administrator. See Weber v. GE Grp. Life. Assurance Co., 541 F.3d 1002, 1015 (10th Cir. 2008). That is not the only instance in which a court may award benefits. If a plan administrator’s actions were clearly arbitrary and capricious, then remand is unnecessary, and a reviewing court may award benefits. DeGrado v. Jefferson Pilot Fin. Ins. Co., 451 F.3d 1161, 1175-76 (10th Cir. 2006). Other circuits have similarly found remand unnecessary for procedural flaws. HN21 As the Second Circuit explained, remand to an insurer is not appropriate if it “serve[s] primarily to give the defendants an opportunity to retool a defective [appeals] system.” Zervos v. Verizon New York, Inc., 277 F.3d 635, 648 (2d Cir. 2002). The Ninth Circuit has expressed concern with giving an additional “bite at the apple” to ERISA administrators acting unjustly. See Grosz-Salomon v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 237 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th Cir. 2001).
In considering if such a rule is appropriate here, we consider the function of judicial review for ERISA administrators. HN22 The Supreme Court has reiterated that judicial deference to ERISA plan administrators is premised on their fiduciary roles. See, e.g., Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 506, 116 S. Ct. 1065, 134 L. Ed. 2d 130 (1996). ERISA requires fiduciaries to “discharge [*40] [their] duties with respect to a plan solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries.” 29 U.S.C. § 1104. When the administrator’s actions or structure threaten their ability to act as a proper fiduciary, the Court has given administrators’ decisions less deference. See Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 107-09, 109 S. Ct. 948, 103 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1989) (disallowing the arbitrary and capricious standard of review when there is a possible conflict of interest for the administrator); Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105, 118, 128 S. Ct. 2343, 171 L. Ed. 2d 299 (2008) (disallowing deferential review when considering the specific facts of the case). When Congress “careful[ly] balance[ed] the need for prompt and fair claims settlement procedures against the public interest in encouraging the formation of employee benefit plans,” Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 54, 107 S. Ct. 1549, 95 L. Ed. 2d 39 (1987), it did not give administrators unlimited freedom to act improperly towards claimants.
We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to remand. Considering the administrator’s clear and repeated procedural errors in denying this claim, it would be contrary to ERISA fiduciary principles to mandate a remand and provide an additional “bite at the apple.” ….
If you need assistance navigating your claim for short term or long term disability benefits under ERISA, or it is time to sue the insurance company, please do not hesitate to give Cody Allison & Associates, PLLC a call (844) LTD-CODY, (615) 234-6000. or send us an e-mail Cody@codyallison.com. We provide representation nationwide and have successfully sued all the major insurance companies in many states. Our headquarters are located in Nashville, Tennessee. We offer a free consultation and would love to speak with you.