Following Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105 (2008), the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Conkright v. Frommert, ___ U.S. ___ , 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469 (2010), added another layer of protection for plan fiduciaries. Glenn held that a conflict of interest is but one factor to be considered by a reviewing court. Conkright held that a “single honest mistake” did not forfeit deference.
Here’s a quick look at how Conkwright has been applied in the short time since its decision.
A recent Third Circuit non-precedential opinion demonstrates the wide berth a Glenn/Conkright analysis gives plan fiduciaries:
Also waived is Goletz’s argument that, because Prudential’s handling of this case has already been faulted once by the District Court, we should now forego extending any deference to Prudential’s decision and subject it to de novo review. This position was all but rejected by the Supreme Court in Conkright, in which the Court explained that ERISA plan administrators “make mistakes” and that a “single honest mistake in plan interpretation” does not justify “stripping the administrator of . . . deference for subsequent related interpretations of the plan.” ___ U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469, 2010 WL 1558979, at *3.
Goletz v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 11501 (3d Cir. Del. June 7, 2010)
On the other hand, a recent district court decision reveals some limitations on the application on Conkright. In this case, the decision of which interest rate is appropriate did not warrant deference, in the opinion of the court:
This leaves the question of what interest rate or rates defendant should use to estimate plaintiffs’ future interest credits. Defendant’s motion to file a surreply brief will be granted to allow defendant to argue that under the recent decision by the United States Supreme Court in Conkright v. Frommert, 130 S. Ct. 1640 (2010), the court should allow defendant to choose a new method for determining an unbiased rate. I conclude that Conkright has no bearing on the issue to be decided in this case. Deferring to the plan fiduciary would be inappropriate in a matter such as this one, involving the method for reflecting future interest credit, on which the plan administrator enjoys no discretion.
Larson v. Alliant Energy Cash Balance Pension Plan, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55420 (W.D. Wis. June 3, 2010)
And a pattern of “deliberate actions” may serve to undo the plan fiduciary seeking the cover of Conkright:
This Court is also aware of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Conkright and finds it inapplicable to the facts of this case. “The question here is whether a single honest mistake in plan interpretation justifies stripping the administrator of that deference for subsequent related interpretations of the plan. We hold that it does not.” Conkright v. Frommert, 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469, 2010 WL 1558979, 3 (2010) v. Frommert, 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469, 2010 WL 1558979, 3 (2010). This case involves not “a single honest mistake,” but a number of deliberate actions by the plan administrator.
Nolan v. College, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53997 (N.D. Cal. May 6, 2010)
A predicted trend toward more frequently “remands” of cases to plan administrators finds support in a recent district court opinion.
As the Supreme Court recently reiterated, “ERISA law [is] already complicated enough without adding special procedural or evidentiary rules to the mix.” Conkright v Frommert, US , 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469, 476 (2010) v Frommert, US , 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469, 476 (2010) (citation and internal quotation omitted). When, a plan administrator (or here, a plan’s clerical staff) makes a simple mistake, the plan remains entitled to deference. 130 S. Ct. 1640, 176 L. Ed. 2d 469, 476 at 476-477. This court, however, would face a difficult challenge evaluating plaintiff’s claims through such a deferential lense, while, at the same time, independently scrutinizing the Carteron report. It is thus appropriate, rather than to substitute its judgment for that of the plan administrator or, perhaps more accurately, to adopt the plan’s post hoc rationales for why the Carteron report is of no value, for the court to follow the Ninth Circuit’s preferred “usual remedy” in such circumstances and to remand the file for further consideration for a full an fair review.
Fortlage v. Heller Ehrman, LLP, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50634 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 27, 2010)
Note: Much remains to be learned about how the standard of judicial review will evolve after the latest Supreme Court intervention in Conkwright. At present, however, it appears that certain issues may eludeapplication of the opinion, e.g., interest rate determinations, certain conduct may override application of the opinion, e.g., repeated “deliberate actions”, but that overall, the opinion will expand the scope of deference and, in any event, generate more instances wherein the district court will send the case back to the plan administrator for another go at the disputed issue.