United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
CAROL H. STEWART, Plaintiff,
HARTFORD LIFE AND ACCIDENT INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter comes before the court on "Plaintiffs Opposed
Motion for Discovery." (Doc. 43). Plaintiff Carol
Stewart brought an ERISA claim against Hartford Life and
Accident Insurance Company for (1) denying her long-term
disability (LTD) claim, and (2) denying her
waiver-of-life-premium (WOLP) claim. (Doc. 1). Ms.
Stewart's motion for discovery presents a variety of
arguments, and her proposed discovery contemplates
far-reaching interrogatories, requests for production,
requests for admissions, and depositions. (Doc. 44). For the
following reasons, the court will GRANT IN PART the motion as
to the specific requests identified in this Opinion and will
DENY the motion as to Plaintiffs remaining discovery
Standard of Review
motion under consideration seeks discovery beyond the scope
of the administrative record. But district courts reviewing
ERISA benefits decisions do not typically permit discovery
outside the administrative record. See Quinn v. Qwest
Comm 'ns Corp., No. CV-09-BE-2403-E, 2011 WL
13227997, at *2 (N.D. Ala. Sept. 30, 2011) ("[A]n ERISA
plaintiff cannot generally supplement the Administrative
Record with additional evidence after the plan
administrator's decision has been made.") (citing
Oliver v. Coca Cola Co., 497 F.3d 1181, 1195 (11th
Cir. 2007)). The prohibition on extra-record discovery is not
absolute, though, and the framework for ERISA review
elucidates when courts should allow additional discovery.
language of ERISA does not dictate the standard of review
courts should apply when reviewing the benefits decision of
plan administrators. But the Supreme Court determined that,
when an insurance policy vests the plan administrator with
discretion to review claims, the reviewing court should apply
an arbitrary and capricious standard of review to the plan
administrator's decisions. Firestone Tire &
Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 113 (1989).
Eleventh Circuit has since established a six-step procedure
for reviewing ERISA benefits decisions:
(1) Apply the fife novo standard to determine
whether the claim administrator's benefits-denial
decision is "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
Blankenship v. Metro. Life Ins., 644 F.3d 1350, 1355
(11th Cir. 2011).
this framework, if a court determines the benefits decision
was de novo wrong under Step 1 but that reasonable
grounds for the decision existed under Step 3, the plaintiff
usually requires extra-record discovery to prove the
existence and influence of the administrator's conflict
of interest at Steps 4 and 6. The administrative record,
after all, rarely discloses "much, if any, information
about the conflict of interest." Harvey v. Std.
Ins., 787 F.Supp.2d 1287, 1291 (N.D. Ala. 2011).
court recognizes that a structural conflict of interest
presents "an unremarkable fact in today's
marketplace." See Blankenship, 644 F.3d at
1356. The court also recognizes that, although not precedent
or binding, the Eleventh Circuit has affirmed that conflict
discovery is not necessary when the dispute can be resolved
under de novo review in Step 1. Blair v. Metro.
Life Ins., 569 Fed.Appx. 827, 832 (11th Cir. 2014).
Nevertheless, this court must consider a conflict of interest
as a factor in its analysis under the sixth and final step of
reviewing ERISA benefits decisions. See Metro. Life Ins.
v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 2343, 2346 (2008). And the court
often requires extra-record discovery to do so.
court need not always limit this extra-record discovery to
just conflict discovery. For instance, reviewing courts
"are limited to the record that was before [the
administrator] when it made its decision" during Step 1.
Glazer v. Reliance Std. Life Ins., 524 F.3d 1241,
1247 (11th Cir. 2008). But the "record before the
administrator" can differ importantly from the official
administrative record defendant-administrators enter into
evidence. See, e.g., Johnston v. Aetna Life Ins.,
282 F.Supp.3d 1303, 1307 (S.D. Fla. 2017) (concluding that
the Eleventh Circuit "does not foreclose discovery of
administrator's consideration of other evidence that is
not in the administrative record").
differently, if the administrative record proves insufficient
for the court to complete its de novo review under
Step 1, a reviewing court can permit extra-record discovery
to the extent that the requested discovery will better align
the record before the court and the "record ...