Ninth Circuit Says Insurance Companies are Proper Defendants in ERISA Welfare Plan Lawsuits

After years of uncertainty, an important legal question was finally resolved by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in an opinion, Cyr v. Reliance Standard Life, issued today, June 22, 2011.

Sitting en banc, the Court considered whether or not an insurance company, acting as the administrator for an ERISA group disability plan, could be sued in its own name as a defendant in a lawsuit for benefits. For years, insurance companies have been arguing that they are not proper party defendants. The companies have successfully been forcing plan beneficiaries to try and track down plan administrators — who are sometimes difficult to find, or expensive to serve — in order to timely and properly file a lawsuit. Suing a plan administrator of an insured plan is nothing more than a charade, as it is the insurance companies who usually have final say about whether benefits will be paid. Because of a loophole in the law, insurers were able to frustrate plan participants who wanted to sue for benefits but who were not able to identify and/or properly serve the plan administrator. That game is now over.

Writing for the Court, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said”[w]e conclude, therefore, that potential liability under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) is not limited to a benefits plan or the plan administrator.” The Court went further and overruled previous authority which has been used for years by insurance companies to thwart plaintiffs: “Any statements or suggestions to the contrary in our prior decisions, including Ford v. MCI Communications Corp. Health & Welfare Plan, 399 F.3d 1076, 1081 (9th Cir. 2005); Everhart v. Allmerica Financial Life Insurance Co., 275 F.3d 751, 756 (9th Cir. 2001); Spain v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., 13 F.3d 310, 312 (9th Cir. 1993); and Gelardi v. Pertec Computer Corp., 761 F.2d 1323 (9th Cir. 1985), are overruled.”

The Court’s full decision can be read by clicking this link: http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/06/22/07-56869.pdf

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