On May 11, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision in Orzechowski v. Boeing Co. Non-Union LTD Plan, et al., Case No. 14-55919 (9th Circ. May 11, 2017) upholding the application of the California law which invalidates “discretionary clauses” in Long Term Disability (LTD) plans and other life and disability contracts of insurance.
Prior to 2012, insurers in California (and many other states) were allowed to place “discretionary clauses” into their insurance policies. These clauses, while seemingly innocuous, actually made it significantly harder for insureds to challenge wrongful denials of insurance benefits in court. These clauses forced Federal Courts to review denials of insurance benefits under an “abuse of discretion” standard. In order to prevail under this standard, an insured not only had to show that they were entitled to the benefits under the contract, but they also had to show that the insurer’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” The effect of this was that Court’s were routinely deferring to the “discretion” of the insurer thereby upholding their denial. This created is a much more difficult standard of proof for insureds to meet than in an ordinary civil lawsuit, where one need only prove their case by a “preponderance” of the evidence, and where Courts do not give any special weight to the evidence presented by the other side. The result of the so-called discretionary clauses was that many insureds lost their lawsuits for wrongfully denied benefits even when, technically, they were entitled to benefits under the term of the contract. Court’s would simply hold they could not find evidence the insurer “abused its discretion” or acted unreasonably enough so as to justify overturning the insurer’s denial of benefits.
In 2012, the California legislature passed California Insurance Code §10110.6, which provides that all discretionary clauses in California insurance contracts are null and void, if the insurance policy or plan “renewed” as of January 1, 2012. As a result, Courts will now look at the evidence anew, or “de novo” to make a determination of whether the insured is entitled to benefits, instead of simply deferring to the insurance company’s conclusions. This is a much easier burden for insureds to meet than the older “abuse of discretion” standard.