United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
J. HALE, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
action arises under the Employee Retirement Income Security
Act (ERISA). Plaintiff Gregory Blackwell claims that
Defendant Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston improperly
denied him disability benefits. (Docket No. 1, PageID # 3)
Liberty has moved for partial summary judgment on those
claims asserted by Blackwell pursuant to 29 U.S.C. §
1132(a)(3). (D.N. 23) Liberty also objects to Magistrate
Judge Dave Whalin's May 20, 2016 order addressing
Blackwell's motion to compel discovery. (D.N. 27) The
Court will address the motion to compel and the motion for
partial summary judgment in turn. After careful
consideration, the objections to Judge Whalin's discovery
order will be overruled, but the motion for partial summary
judgment will be granted.
Gregory Blackwell was insured under a long-term disability
insurance policy that was underwritten, issued, and
administered by Defendant Liberty Life Assurance Company of
Boston. (D.N. 1, PageID # 2) In his complaint, Blackwell
states that he ceased working in April 2014 because physical
limitations prevented him from engaging in full-time, gainful
employment. (Id.) He submitted a claim to Liberty
for disability benefits, which Liberty initially approved.
(Id.) Liberty paid benefits to Blackwell on a
short-term disability plan and then under the long-term
disability policy until October 2014. (Id.)
Blackwell alleges that Liberty denied any further benefits
after October 2014. (Id.) He claims that this denial
occurred despite his ongoing disability and without any
evidence that his physical condition improved. (Id.)
Blackwell unsuccessfully appealed to Liberty's appeals
unit. (Id.) Having exhausted his administrative
remedies, he seeks relief from this Court. (Id.)
after filing this action, Blackwell served Liberty with a set
of interrogatories and requests to produce documents, as well
as requests to take depositions. (Id., PageID # 276)
However, the parties disagree over the permissible scope of
discovery in ERISA cases, thereby putting the adequacy of
Liberty's discovery responses in issue. (Id.,
PageID # 277) Blackwell filed a motion to compel discovery
and challenges Liberty's responses to certain
interrogatories and requests for production, as well as its
refusal to schedule the requested depositions. (D.N. 16) In
response to the motion to compel, Liberty maintains that
discovery should not be permitted here based upon the mere
allegation of a conflict of interest. (D.N. 21, PageID # 162)
type of discovery dispute is nearly identical to others that
have come before courts in the Western District of Kentucky.
See, e.g., Scott-Warren v. Liberty Life
Assurance Co. of Bos., No. 3:14-cv-738-CRS, 2016 WL
5661774 (W.D. Ky. Sept. 29, 2016) (Scott-Warren I);
Myers v. Anthem Life Ins. Co., 316 F.R.D. 186 (W.D.
Ky. 2016) (Myers I); Owens v. Liberty Life
Assurance Co. of Bos., No. 4:15-cv-71-JHM, 2016 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 51350 (W.D. Ky. Jan. 15, 2016) (Owens
I); Davis v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins.
Co., No. 3:14-cv-507-TBR, 2015 WL 7571905 (W.D. Ky. Nov.
11, 2015); Gluc v. Prudential Life Ins. Co. of Am.,
309 F.R.D. 406 (W.D. Ky. 2015); Mullins v. Prudential
Ins. Co. of Am., 267 F.R.D. 504 (W.D. Ky. 2010).
Consistent with these cases, Judge Whalin's May 20, 2016
order granted Blackwell's motion to compel on nearly all
items, except for where Blackwell's desired scope of
discovery exceeded the limits permitted by prior decisions.
timely objected to Judge Whalin's order, arguing that
“Judge Whalin departed from Sixth Circuit
guidance.” (D.N. 27, PageID # 308) Liberty argues that
Johnson v. Conn. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 324 F.
App'x 456 (6th Cir. 2009) is controlling here. Citing
Johnson, Liberty maintains that review of a decision
denying ERISA benefits is limited to the administrative
record. (D.N. 27, PageID # 307) However, Liberty concedes
that discovery may be permitted “in furtherance of a
colorable procedural challenge.” (D.N. 27, PageID # 308
(quoting Johnson, 324 F. App'x at 467))
DEFENDANT'S OBJECTIONS TO JUDGE WHALIN'S DISCOVERY
to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a), Liberty objects to Judge Whalin's
May 20, 2016 order granting in part Blackwell's motion to
compel. (D.N. 27, PageID # 307) Rule 72(a) provides that the
Court must “modify or set aside any part of the
[magistrate judge's] order that is clearly erroneous or
is contrary to law.” “The magistrate judge's
factual findings are reviewed under the clearly erroneous
standard.” Scott-Warren I, 2016 WL 5661774, at
*3. Clear error exists “when the reviewing court is
left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has
been committed.” Max Trucking, LLC v. Liberty Mut.
Ins. Corp., 802 F.3d 793, 810 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing
Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573
(1985)). On the other hand, the magistrate judge's legal
conclusions are reviewed under the “contrary to
law” standard. Scott-Warren, 2016 WL 5661775,
at *3. “A legal conclusion is contrary to law when it
contradicts or ignores applicable legal principles found in
the Constitution, statutes, and case precedent.”
Id. (citing Gandee v. Glaser, 785 F.Supp.
684, 686 (S.D. Ohio 1992)).
Court finds that Judge Whalin's order is not clearly
erroneous. The Court also finds that the order is not
contrary to law, given that the weight of authority supports
his conclusion. Therefore, Liberty's objections will be
scope of discovery in ERISA actions is substantially limited.
Davis, 2015 WL 7571905, at *1. However, courts
permit the plaintiff to conduct some discovery beyond the
administrative record when a conflict of interest exists.
See McQueen v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 595
F.Supp.2d 752, 755 (E.D. Ky. 2009). The U.S. Supreme Court
has held that a 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).
Sixth Circuit has declined to create special evidentiary
rules relating to such conflicts of interest. See
Johnson, 324 F. App'x at 466. “This does not
mean, however, that discovery will automatically be available
any time the defendant is both the administrator and the
payor under an ERISA plan.” Id. at 467. Courts
may permit discovery “when consideration of that
evidence is necessary to resolve an ERISA claimant's
procedural challenge to the administrator's decision,
such as an alleged lack of due process afforded by the
administrator or alleged bias on its part.” Wilkins
v. Baptist Healthcare Sys., Inc., 150 F.3d 609, 618 (6th
Cir. 1998). “District courts are well-equipped to
evaluate and determine whether and to what extent limited
discovery is appropriate in furtherance of a colorable
procedural challenge under Wilkins.”
Johnson, 324 F. App'x at 467.
the lack of precise standards in this area, district courts
have come to different conclusions as to when discovery is
permissible. Davis, 2015 WL 7571905, at *2. In
addition to showing that a conflict of interest exists, some
courts require that the plaintiff show sufficient facts to
support their claim. See, e.g., Donovan v.
Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., No.
1:10-2627-PAG, 2011 WL 1344252, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Apr. 8,
2011); Greer v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins.
Co., No. 08-12837-DAS, 2009 WL 1620402, at *5 (E.D.
Mich. June 9, 2009). This is the approach Liberty urges the
Court to follow. (D.N. 27, PageID # 309) However, in the
Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky, the mere existence
of a conflict of interest has typically been a sufficient
basis on which to allow limited discovery outside of ...