Federal Court Slams Plan With $61,380 Penalty For Failing to Provide Plan Documents, Rules Plan “Belies Logic”

Federal Court Slams Plan With $61,380 Penalty For Failing to Provide Plan Documents, Rules Plan “Belies Logic”

On September 21, 2015 a Federal Court slammed a Plan Sponsor for not providing Plan Documents, ruling the Plan’s action “belies logic”. The Federal Court hit the Plan Sponsor with a $61,380 penalty on top of the previously awarded $12,760 statutory penalty for not providing insurance policy in a timely manner.

Here is a cautionary tale for all Plan Administrators, Plan Sponsors and Fiduciaries. In this case, the member participant of an ERISA Plan requested all relevant documents from the Plan but the plan did not respond in a timely manner. According to court records, there were two Plan Documents, the insurance policy (SPD) and another Plan Document. The Plan provided the insurance policy (SPD), albeit still too  late, and was initially hit with a $12,760 penalty for its failure to provide that document in a timely manner. However, the Plan did not provide the other additional Plan Document until much later in the process.

The Plan argued that the other Plan Document did not need to be furnished because it did not mention the insurance policy and because there were conflicting terms between it and the SPD. The court disagreed saying the Plan’s argument “belies logic” and found the other Plan Document to be a “controlling ERISA document” and as such, the Plan “was under an obligation to furnish a copy of the Plan Document” at the request of the plan participant. Because the Plan failed to do so, it was hit with an additional $61,380 penalty in spite of the fact there were no inconsistencies between the SPD insurance policy and Plan Document.

According to the court:

“Defendant Board of Trustees argues that its failure to provide Plaintiff with the Plan Document is excused because the Plan Document contains no terms that specifically address the life insurance benefit, and because there are no conflicting terms between the SPD and the Plan Document regarding same. This argument represents two sides of the same coin, and is dispelled with the same reasoning. Even if the parties agree that the SPD is a controlling document for Mr. Harris’ life insurance policy, the terms of the SPD specifically state that in the event of any inconsistency between the SPD and the Plan Document, the Plan Document will control. Ergo, armed only with access to the SPD and not the Plan Document, Plaintiff could not have known the unequivocal terms of the life insurance policy because she did not have the opportunity to discover any inconsistencies, or lack thereof, between the SPD and the Plan Document. In this case, it happens that there are no inconsistencies between the SPD and the Plan Document with regards to the life insurance policy. This, however, was not known by Plaintiff until she received the Plan Document on December 10, 2014, despite multiple requests to Defendant Board of Trustees for copies of all controlling or relevant ERISA documents. In sum, to claim simultaneously, as Defendant Board of Trustees does, that only the SPD (and not the Plan Document) is a controlling ERISA document, but at the same time stating that “[i]f there is any difference between the Plan Document and [the SPD], the Plan Document will control,” (id.), belies logic. Accordingly, the Court finds that the Plan Document is a controlling ERISA document.”

The court goes on to say:

“Having found that Defendant Board of Trustees was under an obligation to furnish a copy of the Plan Document at Plaintiff’s request, the Court now turns to the appropriate time frame for statutory penalties under 29 U.S.C. 1132(c).”

According to the court:

“Given Defendant Board of Trustees’ deliberate choice not to respond to Plaintiff’s unambiguous third request for documents, and Defendants failure to respond at all to either the second or third request for documents, (see Doc. 39 at 15–16), the Court finds that assessing the maximum penalty is appropriate in this case. Accordingly, Defendant Board of Trustees will be assessed a penalty of $61,380.00 for its failure to furnish a copy of the Plan Document, calculated at $110.00 per day for the 558 days between May 31, 2013 and December 10, 2014. This penalty is in addition to the $12,760.00 for Defendant Board of Trustees’ failure to provide a copy of the Policy, discussed supra Section IV.B.”

The case is Harris-Frye v. United of Omaha Life Insurance Company, and Board of Trustees, Mid-South Carpenters Regional Council Health and Welfare Fund, Case No. 1:14-cv-72. United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga Division

It is clear that Plan Administrators and Fiduciaries should respond to any appeals and document requests in accordance with section 104 (b) (2) and 104 (b) (4) of ERISA, and pursuant to the interpretation of “plan document” from DOL Advisory Opinions, 96-14A, which states:

it is the view of the Department of Labor that, for purposes of section 104 (b) (2) and 104 (b) (4), any document or instrument that specifies procedures, formulas, methodologies, or schedules to be applied in determining or calculating a participant’s or beneficiary’s benefit entitlement under an employee benefit plan would constitute an instrument under which the plan is established or operated, regardless of whether such information is contained in a document designated as the “plan document”. Accordingly, studies, schedules or similar documents that contain information and data, such as information and data relating to standard charges or calculating a participant’s or beneficiary’s benefit entitlements under an employee benefit plan would constitute “instrument under which the plan is… operated.

Plan Administrators and fiduciaries should also look to the DOL for guidance on the matter, specifically, DOL FAQs About The Benefit Claims Procedure Regulation:

FAQ B-5: For purposes of furnishing relevant documents to a claimant, what kind of disclosure is required to demonstrate compliance with the administrative processes and safeguards required to ensure and verify appropriately consistent decision making in making the benefit determination?

What documents will be required to be disclosed will depend on the particular processes and safeguards that a plan has established and maintains to ensure and verify appropriately consistent decision making. See 65 FR at 70252. The department does not anticipate new documents being developed solely to comply with this disclosure requirement. Rather, the department anticipates that claimants who request this disclosure will be provided with what the plan actually used, in the case of the specific claim denial, to satisfy this requirement. The plan could, for example, provide the specific plan rules or guidelines governing the application of specific protocols, criteria, rate tables, fee schedules, etc. to claims like the claim at issue, or the specific checklist or cross-checking document that served to affirm that the plan rules or guidelines were appropriately applied to the claimant’s claim. Plans are not required to disclose other claimants’ individual records or information specific to the resolution of other claims in order to comply with this requirement. See § 2560.503-1(m)(8)(iii). See question D-12.

Avym is dedicated to empowering providers with ERISA appeal compliance and ERISA litigation support in all cases as well as ERISA class actions.  All medical providers and Health Plans should understand critical issues regarding the profound impact of this and other court decisions on the nation’s medical claim denial epidemic. Providers should also know how to correctly appeal every wrongful claim denial and overpayment demand and subsequent claims offsetting with valid ERISA assignment and the first ERISA permanent injunction.  In addition, when faced with pending litigation and or offsets or recoupments, providers should look for proper litigation support against all wrongful claim denials and overpayment recoupment and offsetting, to seek for enforcement and compliance with ERISA & PPACA claim regulations.



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