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ERISA standard of review

In case anyone needed a reminder about the district court’s standard of review in an ERISA case, the U.S. Fifth Circuit recently drove the message home, with some harsh words for the district judge:

It apparently bears repeating here that district courts hearing complaints from disappointed ERISA plan members or their beneficiaries for the administrative denial of benefits are not sitting, as they usually are, as courts of first impression. Rather, they are serving in an appellate role. And, their latitude in that capacity is very narrowly restricted by ERISA and its regulations, as interpreted by the courts of appeals and the Supreme Court, including the oft-repeated admonition to affirm the determination of the plan administrator unless it is “arbitrary” or is not supported by at least “substantial evidence”—even if that determination is not supported by a preponderance. We had thought that by now this was understood and accepted by all district judges of this circuit. But, as this case demonstrates that we were wrong, at least as to one of them, we try yet again to drive that message home.

McCorkle v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., No. 13-30745, slip op. at 6–7 (5th Cir. July 3, 2014) (footnotes omitted, emphasis by the court). The opinion goes on to articulate the abuse-of-discretion standard of review applicable in ERISA cases. For anyone who practices in this area, it’s a must-read.

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