Ellis v. Liberty Life Assurance Co, No. 19-1074 (10th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
In 2014, Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston rejected the claim for long-term disability benefits by plaintiff-appellee Michael Ellis. As part of its employee-benefit plan, Comcast Corporation, for whom Ellis worked in Colorado from 1994 until 2012, had obtained from Liberty in 2005 a Group Disability Income Policy (the Policy). Ellis sought review of Liberty’s denial of benefits in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The district court, reviewing the denial de novo, ruled that Liberty’s denial was not supported by a preponderance of the evidence. Liberty appealed, contending the court should have reviewed its decision under an abuse-of-discretion standard but that it should prevail even under a de novo standard. Ellis defended the district court’s choice of a de novo standard but argued he should prevail under either standard of review. The Tenth Circuit determined a plan administrator’s denial of benefits was ordinarily reviewed by the court de novo; but if the policy gave the administrator discretion to interpret the plan and award benefits, judicial review was for abuse of discretion. The Policy at issue provided that it was governed by the law of Pennsylvania, which was where Comcast was incorporated and has its principal place of business. Among its terms was one that gave Liberty discretion in resolving claims for benefits. A Colorado statute enacted in 2008, however, forbade such grants of discretion in insurance policies. The parties disputed whether the statute applied to the Policy under Colorado law, and whether Colorado law governed. The Tenth Circuit held that in this dispute the law of Pennsylvania was controlling. Liberty’s denial of benefits was therefore properly reviewed for abuse of discretion. Under that standard the denial had to be upheld.