ERISA-Second Circuit Rules That Plan Administrator’s Denial Of Benefits Claim Was Not Arbitrary Or Capricious

In Roganti v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Nos. 13-4532-cv (L), 13-4684-cv (XAP) (2nd Cir. 2015), the plaintiff, Ronald Roganti (“Roganti”), was a successful executive with defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) until 2005, when he resigned in the face of pay reductions that he claims were levied in retaliation for his opposition to unethical business practices. Roganti brought arbitration proceedings against MetLife before the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”), seeking, among other things, wages that he would have been paid but for the retaliatory pay reductions, as well as compensation for the decreased value of his pension, which was tied to his wages. The FINRA panel awarded Roganti approximately $2.49 million in “compensatory damages,” but its award did not clarify what that sum was compensation for. Roganti then filed a benefits claim with MetLife, arguing that the award represented back pay and that his pension benefits should be adjusted upward as if he had earned the money while he was still employed. MetLife denied the claim because the FINRA award did not say that it was, in fact, back pay. Roganti brought this lawsuit.

In analyzing the case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that ERISA creates a private right of action to enforce the terms of a benefit plan. ERISA section 502(a)(1)(B). The pension plans covering Roganti plans vest interpretive discretion in the plan administrator, which means that the plan administrator’s benefits decision is conclusive unless it is arbitrary and capricious. MetLife is the plan administrator. After a summary bench trial on stipulated facts, the district court determined that MetLife’s denial of Roganti’s claim was arbitrary and capricious because it was clear from the arbitral record that the award did represent back pay. The Court said that it did not agree. Instead, the Court concluded that MetLife’s denial of Roganti’s claim was not arbitrary and capricious, and that MetLife is therefore entitled to judgment in its favor as to his benefits claim.

Why this conclusion? The Court found that MetLife’s rationale for denying Roganti’s claim–i.e., that it was impossible to determine whether, or the extent to which, the FINRA award represented back pay–was not, in fact, unreasonable, and therefore met the arbitrary and capricious standard.

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