Employees in Chicago and the Midwest often call my office and inquire about the "conflict of interest" in ERISA long-term disability cases. Few cases will be determined based on whether there is a conflict of interest, as insurers have become more clever at creating an appearance of there being no conflict of interest. But the best way to understand how the conflict applies in cases is to witness it changing the outcome of a case.
In 2008, the United States Supreme Court held that where an ERISA plan administrator (such as an insurance company) both evaluates and makes benefit determinations, and is the source of funding to pay the benefits, the administrator is under a structural conflict of interest that should be weighed in judicial review of whether the administrator abused its discretion. Metropolitan Life v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105 (2008). That does not necessarily mean the abuse of discretion standard will not apply; it just means a reviewing court will consider that conflict of interest. But something more than just the existence of the structural conflict usually needs to be shown. A claimant needs to show what else the insurance company did that shows that conflict of interest altered the administrator's benefit determination. A perfect example of this was in a recent (unpublished) decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
In Letvinuck v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., Aetna was the administrator of the Boeing Company Employee Health and Welfare Benefit Plan, and also funded the long-term disability benefits. No. 10-55018 (9th Cir. June 22, 2011). Aetna gave no weight to the fact that the claimant had been awarded disability benefits by the Social Security Administration, and did not try to address why the ERISA benefits were not payable despite Social Security benefits being awarded. Next, Aetna failed to tell the claimant what else she would need to show in order to be approved for the benefits. The court called this failure to "engage in meaningful dialogue" with the claimant and failure to let her know what evidence the insurer required. Because the claimant could point to these facts, the court then gave weight to the conflict of interest, viewed the denial with skepticism, and ordered the insurer to pay the benefits.
If you still have questions about how a conflict of interest can affect your right to disability benefits, speak with an ERISA lawyer.