In Rasenack vs. AIG Life Insurance Company, the Tenth Circuit ruled that AIG’s delays in deciding Rasenack’s claim for benefits under an accidental death and dismemberment policy (ADD policy) were substantial enough to result in a de novo review of the claim by the trial court. Generally, under ERISA, claims decisions by administrators such as AIG are reviewed by the courts under an arbitrary and capricious standard. Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, so long as the decision is supported by evidence, it will be upheld, while under a de novo standard, no weight is given to the claims administrator’s decision. Summary judgment for AIG was reversed, and the case was remanded.
Mr. Rasenack was severely injured as a pedestrian by a hit and run vehicle. He was in a coma for three weeks and remained hospitalized for months. He claimed he was entitled to paralysis benefits under the AIG policy because he lost the use of both legs and his left arm. The plan says that claims will be determined in 90 days, or under special circumstances, within 180 days; AIG took 16 months to deny the claim. Rasenack appealed. Appeals were to be decided in 60 days. Seven months later, with no decision by AIG on the appeal, Rasenack sued. AIG then denied the appeal.
First the court held that the claims administrator’s decision was entitled to no deference where the decision was made by operation of law, rather than the use of discretion. Then the court found that the policy was ambiguous. The policy’s definition of hemiplegia as “complete and irreversible paralysis” is wholly dependent on the meaning of “paralysis,” which the policy does not define. AIG claimed that the definition of hemiplegia carries a plain meaning, i.e., that the entire arm and leg of one side of the body must be “completely paralyzed,” and that “anything less than ‘no movement at all’ would not be ‘complete’ paralysis.” While complete absence of movement may be a reasonable interpretation of ‘paralysis’, it was not the only interpretation, as found in various medical texts. And the summary plan description defined hemiplegia as the loss of “use of both upper and lower limb on same side of body.” The language was strictly construed against AIG, the drafter of the policy.
The court then reviewed the record, finding that there was evidence which supported the claim. This was important because AIG stated in its denial that there was no evidence to support the claim. The failure of AIG to consider evidence in support of the claim made the decision fatally one sided:
Comparing AIG’s explanations of its decision to deny the claim to the information contained in the administrative record, it appears that AIG cherry-picked the information helpful to its decision to deny Mr. Rasenack’s claim and disregarded the contrary opinions of the medical professionals who examined, treated, and interviewed Mr. Rasenack.
Thus, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the case back to the district court for a de novo review. It declined to remand the case back to the plan administrator, finding that AIG’s delays made such an option inappropriate.