June 22, 2011 – A recent opinion from the Ninth Circuit United States Court of Appeals has helped clarify the rules as to who you can sue in actions for benefits under a long term disability policy See Cyr v. Reliance Standard & Channel Technologies, 2011 WL 2464440, June 22, 2011. The Court concluded that under appropriate circumstances, an entity other than the plan itself or the plan administrator may be sued under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B).

Laura Cyr was employed by Channel Technologies, Inc. ("CTI") as a vice president. CTI provided its employees with long term disability benefits under a program insured by defendant Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company ("Reliance"). CTI was the plan administrator, and Reliance effectively controlled the decision whether to honor or deny a claim for benefits. In October 2000, Cyr filed a claim for long term disability benefits based on a back condition. Reliance approved the benefits and based her monthly payment on her salary of $85,000/year.

Ms. Cyr later filed suit against her employer, CTI, alleging gender discrimination. A settlement agreement was eventually reached which awarded Cyr a retroactive salary of $155,000/year. When Cyr asked Reliance to increase her monthly benefit amount in accord with her adjustment in salary, Reliance declined. Cyr was forced to file suit to pursue her claim for the increased benefits.

Cyr filed suit against Reliance, the CTI Group Long Term Disability Benefit Program (the ‘Plan’), and CTI as the plan administrator for the Plan. Reliance moved for summary judgment, arguing that only the plan or plan administrator could be held liable under the statute. Initially, the district court agreed with Reliance, but later the court changed its mind and ruled in favor of Cyr. Cyr was awarded fees, costs and interest on the money owed. In light of this ruling, Reliance appealed.

The issue for the Appellate Court was whether Reliance was a proper defendant in a suit for benefits under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) even though it was neither a plan or plan administrator. The Court first noted that neither 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) nor 29 U.S.C. § 1132 stated any limits about who could be sued. Additionally, the Appellate Court looked to a United States Supreme Court ruling for guidance. In Harris Trust & Savings Bank v. Salomon Smith Barney, Inc., 530 U.S. 238 (2000), the Supreme Court addressed a similar question of who can be sued under a similar statute, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). In that case, the Supreme Court noted that 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) makes no mention at all of which parties may be proper defendants. The Court then ruled that there was no limit in 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) as to who could be sued.

Similarly, in the case at hand, the Appellate Court felt that because 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) contained no limitation as to who could be sued, the Court could not read a limitation into the statute. The Court concluded that parties other than plans can be sued for money damages as long as that party’s individual liability is established. The Court looked to related section 29 U.S.C. § 1132(d)(2) which provides that ‘any money judgment under this subsection against an employee benefit plan shall be enforceable only against the plan as an entity and shall not be enforceable against any other person unless liability against such person is established in his individual capacity under this subsection.’

In the case at hand, the Court determined that Reliance, as plan insurer who is responsible for paying legitimate benefits claims, is a logical and proper defendant for Cyr to recover benefits due, along with the plan and the plan administrator. The Court denied Reliance’s appeal.

About the author: Gregory Michael Dell is an attorney and managing partner of the disability income division of Attorneys Dell & Schaefer. Mr. Dell and his team of lawyers have assisted thousands of long-term disability claimants with their claims against every major disability insurance company. To request a free legal consultation call 800-411-9085.