By: Jon Jablon, Esq.
The concept of “discretionary authority” within a plan document can be somewhat esoteric. After all, Plan Administrators have to make decisions sometimes; even if the SPD doesn’t explicitly provide the Plan Administrator with the discretionary authority to interpret the provisions of the SPD (which it always should), practically speaking, the Plan Administrator could not possibly administer the plan without exercising some degree of discretion.
Let’s break down what discretionary authority really is, and what it really isn’t. The easiest way is to give a real-life example of something that our consulting department has worked on extensively; here are the facts: a VIP of the plan was driving while intoxicated after an evening work function. The police report would later provide that despite being intoxicated (as tested at the scene), the driver was obeying all traffic rules and did not cause the accident; instead, the accident was caused when a pickup truck slid on some ice, through a stop sign, and t-boned the intoxicated driver’s car. Again – not the intoxicated driver’s fault. But, the SPD language provides that the plan will not pay any expenses for injuries sustained while a plan member is driving while intoxicated. Not caused by the intoxication – but simply while the driver is intoxicated. This is not uncommon, and of course is designed to disincentivize employees from driving while intoxicated.
Eventually, it came time for the Plan Administrator to review the claims and the circumstances under which they arose. The Plan Administrator cited the Plan’s standard discretionary authority language – giving the Plan Administrator the discretion to interpret the terms of the plan and decide questions of fact – and ultimately determined that the member’s intoxicated driving, while not ideal, did not cause the accident, and the Plan subsequently paid the claims. The issue arose when stop-loss denied the claim down the line; the carrier’s denial noted not that the claim was not payable due to a strict interpretation of the SPD (which should have been the reason), but instead the carrier gave the denial reasoning that the Plan Administrator did not have the discretion to make this determination. That incensed the Plan Administrator, since the Plan Administrator felt that the discretionary authority language in the SPD was proof that it did, in fact, have this discretion. (After all, what is that language for, if not to give discretion to the Plan Administrator?!)
Despite the carrier’s odd choice of wording, the carrier is technically correct. A Plan Administrator’s discretion is not absolute; it extends to applying the terms of the SPD or making factual determinations. In this case, the SPD was clear, and the Plan Administrator incorrectly used its discretion to override the terms of the SPD, which is not the purpose of that language. By that logic, the Plan Administrator would have the authority to arbitrarily pay or deny any claims, which is certainly not the intent of ERISA. And what about stop-loss?! Just imagine how a plan could ever be underwritten if that were the case. The fact is, the Plan Administrator’s discretion may be broad, but it does not allow the Plan Administrator to choose to cover something that is explicitly excluded.
Instead, the function of the discretionary authority language is for the Plan Administrator to be able to interpret provisions that may be ambiguous or unclear in any way. It’s effectively an extension of plan language, rather than a vehicle for changing plan language; ideally, the SPD language will be drafted as clearly as possible, but it’s just not realistic to expect the language to perfectly account for every conceivable situation. A good way to conceptualize discretionary authority is like a court making decisions about what it felt the drafters of the Constitution actually meant. The courts can’t change the Constitution, but they can decide what they think it means. Same goes for the Plan Administrator.
If you need help interpreting plan language, or if you need help understanding the extent of a Plan Administrator’s discretion, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with The Phia Group’s consulting department, at PGCReferral@phiagroup.com.