United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division
K. KALLON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Abston filed this action under the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.
(“ERISA”), challenging defendants' decision
to deny her long term disability pension benefits. Presently
before the court is defendants' motion for summary
judgment, doc. 24, which is fully briefed, docs. 24-1; 33;
36, and ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, the
motion is due to be granted.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
56's general principle that summary judgment is proper
“if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law” has limited application
here, because the district court “sits more as an
appellate tribunal than as a trial court” and
“evaluates the reasonableness of an administrative
determination in light of the record compiled before the plan
fiduciary.” Leahy v. Raytheon Co., 315 F.3d
11, 18 (1st Cir. 2002). To that end, the court is guided by
the Eleventh Circuit's six-step sequential framework for
reviewing ERISA benefit denials, which requires the
(1) Apply the de novo standard to determine whether
the claim administrator's benefits-denial decision was
“wrong” (i.e., the court disagrees with the
administrator's decision); if it is not, then end the
inquiry and affirm the decision.
(2) If the administrator's decision in fact is
“de novo wrong, ” then determine whether
he was vested with discretion in reviewing claims; if not,
end judicial inquiry and reverse the decision.
(3) If the administrator's decision is “de
novo wrong” and he was vested with discretion in
reviewing claims, then determine whether
“reasonable” grounds supported it (hence, review
his decision under the more deferential arbitrary and
(4) If no reasonable grounds exist, then end the inquiry and
reverse the administrator's decision; if reasonable
grounds do exist, then determine if he operated under a
conflict of interest.
(5) If there is no conflict, then end the inquiry and affirm
(6) If there is a conflict, the conflict should merely be a
factor for the court to take into account when determining
whether an administrator's decision was arbitrary and
Williams v. Bellsouth Telecommunications, Inc., 373
F.3d 1132, 1138 (11th Cir. 2004), overruled on other
grounds by Doyle v. Liberty Life Assurance, 542
F.3d 1352 (11th Cir. 2008). This court's review of the
administrator's decision is limited to
“consideration of the material available to the
administrator at the time it made its decision.”
Blankenship v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 644 F.3d 1350,
1355 (11th Cir. 2011). Moreover, the claimant has the burden
of proving entitlement to ERISA benefits. Glazer v.
Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., 524 F.3d 1241, 1248 (11th
worked for SunTrust Bank as an Area Manager 1 Branch Manager,
a position in which she managed eleven branches and conducted
annual and midyear reviews. See doc. 24-7 at 21. At
some point during her employment, Abston's treating
physician, Dr. David McLain, diagnosed Abston with lupus,
psoriasis, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. See doc.
24-9 at 31. Consequently, Abston applied for, and received,
long term disability benefits beginning August 5, 2013. Doc.
24-4 at 18. The discontinuation of these benefits is the
basis for this lawsuit.
Long Term Disability (“LTD”) coverage is part of
the SunTrust Banks, Inc. Employee Benefit Plan (“the
Plan”), which is governed by ERISA and provides
financial assistance to eligible employees who are unable to
work, as determined by the claims administrator, due to an
illness or injury after 180 days. Doc. 24-3 at 6, 23. The
Benefits Plan Committee has “delegated the ministerial
and discretionary ...