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Court Penalizes Employer $41,140 for Failure to Timely Provide Plan Documents

In Kinsinger, a federal district court in North Carolina significantly penalized a plan administrator that failed to timely respond to employees’ request for plan documents related to an employer-sponsored group health plan subject to ERISA. The documents were not provided until 748 days after the ERISA required 30-day period to provide documents had expired, and then only in response to a lawsuit claiming an ERISA fiduciary breach for misappropriating employee contributions. The federal district court assessed a penalty of $55 per day (half of the statutory maximum of $110 dollars per day) for the failure to provide the required documents—a penalty determined by the court to reflect “both the egregiousness of the [plan administrator’s] misconduct as well as the extraordinary length of delay.” This opinion serves as a cautionary warning to ERISA plan administrators to not ignore document requests; however, not all documents requested by plaintiff’s attorneys are required to… Continue Reading

Documentation of ERISA Authorized Representative Procedures

Under ERISA, a participant in an ERISA-covered plan has the right to designate an authorized representative to act on his or her behalf in connection with claims and appeals. The plan may establish reasonable procedures for determining whether an individual has been authorized to act on behalf of a claimant. Earlier this year, the DOL issued an information letter stating, in part, that: “The plan must include any procedures for designating authorized representatives in the plan’s claims procedures and in the plan’s summary plan description (“SPD”) or a separate document that accompanies the SPD.” Employers that sponsor ERISA plans should (i) verify that the claims procedures in each plan and SPD contain reasonable procedures for designating authorized representatives and (ii) amend the plan and SPD as needed. View the DOL information letter.

Are Your Voluntary Benefits Programs Subject to ERISA?

An employer should be cautious to not “endorse” a voluntary benefits program that the employer wants to be exempt from ERISA. The DOL’s safe harbor exempting certain plans from ERISA (often called “voluntary plans”) requires the sole function of the employer to be, without endorsing the program, to permit the insurer to publicize the program to employees and to collect premiums and remit them to the insurer. Federal courts have found impermissible endorsements where employers either encouraged their employees to participate in their voluntary benefits program or selected the insurer and limited eligibility criteria. For example, in October 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided a case involving whether the employer’s endorsement of a volunteer disability benefits program caused it to be subject to ERISA. The Court found that (i) a reasonable employee would not view the program as being merely a third-party offering and (ii)… Continue Reading

Does Your TPA Use Cross-Plan Off-Setting? Eighth Circuit Questions Its Compliance with ERISA

The third-party administrator (“TPA”) in this case, UnitedHealth Group and its related entities (“UnitedHealth”), engaged in “cross-plan offsetting”, which involves not paying a claim under Employer A’s group health plan in order to recover an overpayment made by Employer B’s group health plan to the same healthcare service provider. For example, assume UnitedHealth overpaid a provider by $200 on behalf of Employer B’s group health plan, and a participant in Employer A’s group health plan incurred a $250 claim with that same provider. UnitedHealth would only pay the provider $50 on behalf of the participant in Employer A’s group health plan. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed with the federal district court that UnitedHealth’s interpretation of the plans was unreasonable and cross-plan offsetting was not permitted under the plans because (i) interpretations that authorize practices that push the boundaries of what ERISA permits should be viewed… Continue Reading

Plan Agent’s Misstatements, Plus a Deficient SPD, May Equal an ERISA Fiduciary Breach

A recent opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit highlights the adverse consequences that may arise when an employer sponsor of a group health plan that is subject to ERISA fails to maintain a summary plan description of the plan (“SPD”) that is clearly written and that adequately and accurately describes the benefits available under the plan and the terms and conditions of coverage. Case Summary “In re: Emily DeRogatis” is a decision out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Under the facts of this case, Mrs. DeRogatis, the widow of a deceased participant in a multiemployer group health plan, filed a breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA against the plan administrator, asserting that prior to her husband’s death, they were provided misinformation by two non-fiduciary, “ministerial” plan representatives (the “Representatives”) regarding the effect of Mr. DeRogatis’s retirement on their… Continue Reading

Negotiation of a Premium Discount May Constitute an Employer Contribution

A recent case decided by a federal district court in California highlights that employer action other than a direct payment of premiums may constitute an “employer contribution” for purposes of determining whether a group insurance program is exempt from ERISA. Under the so-called “Voluntary Plan Exemption”, generally such a program will be exempt from ERISA if (i) there are no employer contributions toward coverage, (ii) participation in the program is completely voluntary, (iii) the employer does not endorse the program, and (iv) the employer receives no consideration for the program. In Bommarito v. Northwestern Mutual Life Ins. Co., the plaintiff, who was the sole owner of her company, and nine of her employees applied for individual policies of disability insurance to be issued by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (“Northwestern”). In the submission of her application to Northwestern, the plaintiff included the nine employee applications and a request for a… Continue Reading

Class Action Case Certified for Failure to Provide COBRA Election Notices in Spanish

A U.S. District Court in the 11th Circuit certified as a class action a case in which the plaintiff argued that her former employer, the Marriott International hotel chain, violated federal law by failing to: (1) provide a COBRA notice in Spanish; (2) adequately explain the procedures to elect healthcare coverage; (3) identify itself as the plan administrator; and (4) provide a notice that an average plan participant would understand. There are over 15,000 potential class members who received the allegedly deficient COBRA notice. Employers subject to COBRA are required to offer employees the option to continue their group health plan coverage after employment termination (among other COBRA qualifying events). These notices need to comply with language and other requirements. Employers that fail to comply with COBRA may face penalties of up to $110 per day for each individual who is sent a defective notice. Vazquez v. Marriott Int’l, Inc.,… Continue Reading

Sixth Circuit Decision Highlights Importance of Distributing Accurate SPDs

A recent case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit provides yet another example of the importance of ensuring that plan documents and summary plan descriptions (“SPDs”) accurately and consistently describe plan benefits. In Pearce v. Chrysler Group LLC Pension Plan, the plan document provided that a participant who was not actively employed at retirement would be ineligible to receive an early retirement supplement. In contrast, the SPD stated that a participant did not need to be actively employed at retirement to remain eligible for the early retirement supplement. This discrepancy became an issue when an employee accepted a termination incentive, and the employer, relying on the language in the plan document, argued that this made the employee ineligible for the early retirement supplement. The employee requested that the lower court (i) grant equitable estoppel to prevent the employer from relying on the plan document, and… Continue Reading

Self-Funded ERISA Health Plans May Opt Into New Law Regarding Out-of-Network Service Providers

New Jersey recently enacted a law that is intended to address the issue of “surprise out-of-network charges” to patients who obtain healthcare from healthcare providers in New Jersey. The law, entitled the “Out-Of-Network Consumer Protection, Transparency, Cost Containment and Accountability Act” (the “NJ Act”), applies with respect to patients who have insured health coverage, but may also apply to patients who participate in employer-sponsored, self-funded health plans subject to ERISA (each, a “Self-Funded Health Plan”) if such plans voluntarily “opt in” to the NJ Act. The NJ Act imposes numerous new disclosure obligations on healthcare providers in New Jersey regarding information to be posted on their websites or delivered directly to patients who will receive their services. Such information includes (i) the provider’s network status with respect to the patient’s health benefit plan, (ii) a listing of the standard charges for items and services provided by a healthcare facility and… Continue Reading

Association Health Plan Final Regulations Issued

The DOL released final regulations expanding the groups of employers that may participate in one ERISA-covered employee group health plan (an “Association Health Plan”). Generally, employers (including working owners with no employees) may participate in an Association Health Plan as long as they are in the same industry, state, or metropolitan area. A major benefit of joining together to participate in one ERISA-covered group health plan, as opposed to being treated as maintaining separate ERISA group health plans, is that the total number of employees participating in the Association Health Plan, from all participating employers, will determine whether the Association Health Plan is treated as “large group,” “small group,” or individual coverage for purposes of the mandates under the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”). The ACA places a number of requirements on small group and individual coverage that do not apply to large group health plans. An Association Health Plan… Continue Reading

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