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9th Cir. – Procedural Defects

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  • 9th Cir. – Procedural Defects

    Here’s a new case out of the Ninth Circuit, unpublished, entitled Leslie Hoffman v. Screen Actors Guild Producers Pension Plan, et al. In this matter, the plaintiff is a disabled stunt man. This case has a long procedural history which takes up most of the opinion. However, the court ultimately concludes:

    On remand, the district court must address these outstanding factual questions, which will bear upon the degree of skepticism with which the district judge reviews the Plans’ decision to deny Hoffman’s claim for benefits. Abatie, 458 F.3d at 959. To the extent there are factual disputes, the district court must resolve those through a bench trial under Rule 52(a), Fed. R. Civ. P., before granting judgment on Hoffman’s claim for wrongful termination of benefits under ERISA section 502, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(l)(B). Nolan, 551 F.3d at 1154. Viewing new evidence through the lens of a bench trial is not merely a matter of form; it may lead the judge to a wholly different conclusion about the merits of the case. See Kearney, 175 F.3d at 1095 (“The process of finding the facts ‘specially,’ as that rule requires, sometimes leads a judge to a different conclusion from the one he would reach on a more holistic approach.”).

    Because the district court erred in its denial of summary judgment on Hoffman’s section 502 claim, the district court also erred in summarily denying Hoffman’s claims that the Plans failed to provide full and fair review under ERISA section 503, 29 U.S.C. § 1133(2). See Johnson v. Buckley, 356 F.3d 1067, 1077 (9th Cir. 2004) (“In order to challenge a benefit plan’s failure to comply with ERISA’s disclosure requirements, the employees must ‘have a colorable claim that (1) [they] will prevail in a suit for benefits, or that (2) eligibility requirements will be fulfilled in the future.’”). We accordingly remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this disposition.
    There is a very lengthy dissent which is actually longer than the court’s majority opinion. The dissent feels that the majority did not properly apply the abuse of discretion standard.

    Simply put, the inadvertent failure to produce one document that hurts Hoffman’s case and the failure to consider documents that had no bearing on the Plan’s ultimate decision are procedural irregularities, but do not support applying a high level of scrutiny to the Plan’s decision. As a result, even were I to apply a slightly more skeptical form of the abuse of discretion test to the Plan’s decision, bearing the procedural irregularities in mind, I would still afford the Plan broad deference. See Abatie, 458 F.3d at 972.

    • • •

    Ultimately, the plan was faced with conflicting medical evidence. It had to choose between two competing views, both supported by evidence in the record. Under such circumstances, the Plan’s decision to credit the findings of the experts it retained was, almost by definition, not “illogical, implausible, or without support in inferences that may be drawn from the record.” Hinkson, 585 F.3d at 1263. As a result, the district court was correct to grant the Plan summary judgment.
    The opinion is attached below.
    Attached Files

  • #2
    For any movie buffs, the Plaintiff above has quite the impressive resume. Perhaps my favorite is as the stunt double for Queen Elizabeth in Naked Gun.