You know that most ERISA plans, and most supporting insurance policies, have provisions that allow for an offset of Social Security disability benefits.
Can the court invalidate these offset provisions because of “unconscionable” conduct? It depends.
Here’s the case of Hart v. Unum Life Insurance Co. of America Catholic Healthcare West LTD Disability Plan, 2017 WL 4418680 (October 4, 2017)(Court denied Plaintiff’s request to invalidate offset provision).
FACTS: The court previously determined Plaintiff Hart was entitled to ERISA-governed disability benefits. Plaintiff then asked the court to invalidate the Social Security benefit offset provision in the ERISA plan, claiming that Unum’s (wrongful) denial of benefits was unconscionable and forced Hart to “lose her house and her car,” and forced her to prematurely apply for Social Security retirement benefits.
ISSUE: Whether the right to offset Social Security benefit payments should be denied because Unum wrongfully denied disability benefits?
DISTRICT COURT HELD: NO.
- Plaintiff “offers no analysis to show that the law in our circuit would permit application of unconscionability principles…to deny effect to an ERISA provision.” Op. at 3.
- “Allowing Unum the offset it seeks would still compensate Hart for Unum’s wrongful termination of benefits through the age of 65 but not for the reduction of her social security retirement benefits thereafter.” Op. at 4.
- The Court awarded prejudgment interest, which is an “element of compensation, not a penalty.” Op. at 4. “The balance of the equities herein warrants an award of prejudgment interest [at 10%].” Op. at 6.
KEY TAKE AWAY:
-There is some authority allowing a court to exercise “equitable power” to deny offsets, but those cases are distinguishable. See, e.g., Godfrey v. BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc., 89 F.3d 755, 757-9 (11th Cir. 1996)(Offset provision invalid because employer denied disability benefits and then threatened to fire employee unless she returned to work).