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Parker v. Baker Hughes Incorporated Long Term Disability Plan

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 11, 2018




         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Discovery and the accompanying briefing. Docs. 32, 34, 37. In his Motion, Plaintiff seeks to compel discovery regarding Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's (“MetLife”) dual role conflict of interest in order to determine “the seriousness of the inherent conflict and the likelihood that it jeopardized MetLife's decisionmaking process” in denying Plaintiff's ERISA claim. Doc. 32 at 2 (quoting Murphy v. Deloitte & Touche Grp. Ins. Plan, 619 F.3d 1151, 1164 (10th Cir. 2010)).

         On March 22, 2018, counsel for Plaintiff emailed Plaintiff's first interrogatories to MetLife. Doc. 32-1, Exs. A, B. On April 3, 2018, counsel for MetLife emailed Plaintiff's counsel in order to convey its preliminary position regarding the proposed discovery requests. Doc. 32-1, Ex. C. In response, Plaintiff filed his Motion to Compel on April 10, 2018, although he had not yet formally received any of MetLife's discovery responses.[1]Doc. 32. On April 23, 2018, MetLife served its official responses to Plaintiff's interrogatories. Doc. 34-1. Plaintiff filed a Notice of Briefing Complete on May 16, 2018. Doc. 38.

         I. Legal Standard

         As noted above, the discovery disputes at hand relate to Plaintiff's theory of the case that MetLife's dual role conflict of interest influenced its decision to deny Plaintiff's ERISA claim for long-term disability benefits. See generally doc. 32. A dual role conflict of interest exists when “a plan administrator both evaluates claims for benefits and pays benefits claims.” Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105, 112 (2008). “In an ERISA case where . . . the plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan, we review the administrator's decision for an abuse of discretion.” Murphy, 619 F.3d at 1157 (internal quotations and citations omitted). This standard of review applies “even when a conflict of interest potentially affects the benefits decision.” Benson v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., No. 2:10-CV-275-TS, 2011 WL 285831, at *2 (D. Utah Jan. 28, 2011) (citing Glenn, 554 U.S. at 111). Under this standard, courts generally may not consider materials outside the administrative record. Murphy, 619 F.3d at 1162 (citing Sandoval v. Aetna Life & Cas. Ins. Co., 967 F.2d 377, 380 (10th Cir. 1992)).

         However, the Tenth Circuit recognizes a narrow exception to the extra-record discovery prohibition, in which discovery of documents related to an administrator's dual role conflict of interest “may, at times, be appropriate[.]” Id. Nevertheless, this exception does not function as a green light to discovery whenever such conflicts appear; rather, “discovery related to a conflict of interest may often prove inappropriate.” Id. at 1162-63.

         To determine the appropriateness of requested discovery relating to a dual role conflict of interest, the Court must consider the requested discovery pursuant to the familiar standards of Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b). Id. at 1163. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1), the scope of discovery is limited to “any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case. . . . Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.” Id. The Tenth Circuit explained the application of Rule 26(b) in ERISA discovery in Murphy:

First, while . . . ERISA seeks a fair and informed resolution of claims, ERISA also seeks to ensure a speedy, inexpensive, and efficient resolution of those claims. . . . And while discovery may, at times, be necessary to allow a claimant to ascertain and argue the seriousness of an administrator's conflict, Rule 26(b), although broad, has never been a license to engage in an unwieldy, burdensome, and speculative fishing expedition. The party moving to supplement the record or engage in extra-record discovery bears the burden of showing its propriety. Second, in determining whether a discovery request is overly costly or burdensome in light of its benefits, the district court will need to consider the necessity of discovery. For example, the benefit of allowing detailed discovery related to the administrator's financial interest in the claim will often be outweighed by its burdens and costs because the inherent dual role conflict makes that financial interest obvious . . . . Similarly, a district court may be able to evaluate the effect of a conflict of interest on an administrator by examining the thoroughness of the administrator's review, which can be evaluated based on the administrative record. . . . [A] district court may allocate significant weight to a conflict of interest where the record reveals a lack of thoroughness.

Murphy, 619 F.3d at 1163 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a), a party is permitted to file a motion to compel responses to properly propounded discovery. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(a). A court may limit discovery if a request is not “proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1).

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiff's statement that extra-record discovery is not entirely precluded, due to the dual role conflict exception, does not suffice to meet his burden to show that he is entitled to discovery here. Doc. 32 at 2. See Murphy, 619 F.3d at 1163 (“The party moving to . . . . engage in extra-record discovery bears the burden of showing its propriety.”). In other words, as previously stated, the dual role conflict exception does not function as a green light to discovery whenever such conflicts exist; Plaintiff must also show that each request, individually, is appropriate under the standards set forth in Rule 26(b). Thus, MetLife's concession to the existence of its financial conflicts of interest does not end the inquiry, and it remains for the Court to determine the appropriateness of Plaintiff's requests pursuant to Rule 26(b). The Court considers each disputed Interrogatory or Request for Production, in turn.

         Interrogatory Nos. 2 and 3

         Interrogatory Nos. 2 and 3, in conjunction, seek to compel MetLife to “state the name, address, position, job title, and affiliation to MetLife of . . . any [] health or vocational professional who rendered a report or opinion to MetLife, examined records for MetLife, or examined the Plaintiff for MetLife at any time. . . . [and] state how that person was compensated and the exact amount of the compensation” related to Plaintiff's disability claims and appeals. Doc. 34-1 at 2-3. In response to these interrogatories, MetLife stated that Dr. Taylor rendered reports on July 22, 2016 and September 26, 2016, and was compensated $1, 207.50 and $345.00, respectively. Id. at 3. MetLife also responded that it would produce a copy of the relevant consulting agreement with Dr. Taylor, subject to the entry of a protective order. However, as noted in Plaintiff's Reply, Interrogatory Nos. 2 and 3 are not limited to Dr. Taylor. Doc. 37 at 3. In fact, Plaintiff identifies at least two other individuals who contributed to opinions on which MetLife relied: Jacklyn Stachnik and Nancy Brasefield. Id.

         So, the dispute boils down to whether MetLife should be required to respond to Interrogatory Nos. 2 and 3 as they pertain to professionals besides Dr. Taylor. MetLife opposes such a requirement because it alleges that, beyond responsive materials related to Dr. Taylor, the requested information is not proportional to the needs of the case.[2]See doc. 34 at 5-7. This argument is unpersuasive. While Dr. Taylor may be the most significant health professional relied upon by MetLife in Plaintiff's case, he is not the only one. There is no reason to conclude that a conflict of interest could not be revealed in MetLife's interaction with other professionals involved in Plaintiff's case. See Almeida v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., No. 09-CV-1556-ZLW-KLM, 2010 WL 743520, at *3 (D. Colo. Mar. 2, 2010) (holding that “the extent of any alleged conflict of interest could be shown by how Defendant instructs third party consultants, doctors and reviewers and/or whether Defendant provides incentives to them.”). As for proportionality, given MetLife's assertion that each involved professional is identified in the administrative record, it will not be burdensome to collect the information sought in Interrogatory Nos. 2 and 3.

         MetLife next opposes compulsion of this disclosure, stating that such information is readily available to Plaintiff through review of the administrative record. This argument is also unpersuasive. First, information regarding compensation of the relevant individuals is not readily available to Plaintiff in the administrative record. Second, even if it were, an answer to an interrogatory should be complete in itself and should not refer to pleadings, depositions or other documents. See, e.g., Lawman v. City & Cty. of S.F., 159 F.Supp.3d 1130, 1140 (N.D. Cal. 2016); Autoridad de Carreteras y Transportacion v. Transcore Atlantic, Inc., 319 F.R.D. 422, 431 (D.P.R. 2016). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 33(b)(3) (“Each interrogatory must, to the extent it is not objected to, be answered separately and fully in writing under oath.”). This approach ensures that the requesting party is aware of the responding party's precise answer.

         As a result, Plaintiff's Motion, as it relates to Interrogatories 2 and 3, is GRANTED.

         Interrogatory No. 7

         Interrogatory No. 7 requests that MetLife state the total number of times that MetLife requested a medical opinion from Dr. Taylor from 2013 through 2016. Doc. 34-1 at 6. MetLife objected that this request is overbroad to the extent that it seeks information prior to 2015. Consequently, it ...

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