In an issue of first impression, the D.C. Circuit recently held that multiple ERISA plan documents may be examined to determine whether an administrator or fiduciary has discretionary authority to determine benefit eligibility. In Pettaway v. Teachers Insurance & Annuity Ass’n, a plan participant challenged the denial of disability benefits in connection with a previous back injury. In determining the appropriate standard of review, the district court examined the group disability plan, the summary plan description, and the group policy certificate. Finding that the plan and the summary plan description both granted the administrator discretionary authority, the district court applied a deferential standard of review and granted summary judgment to the defendant.
The participant appealed, arguing, inter alia, that a deferential standard of review was improper because her group policy certificate did not grant discretionary authority to the claims administrator. The D.C. Circuit disagreed, holding that it is appropriate to review at a variety of “plan documents” – in this case, all three documents reviewed by the district court – to determine the appropriate standard of review. The appellate court reasoned that the text of ERISA clearly contemplates that multiple plan documents are legally relevant, and that other courts that have considered this question, including the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, have generally reached the same conclusion. The court did not provide an exhaustive list of those plan documents that should be considered when determining the standard of review, but held that review of “multiple plan documents” is appropriate.