What is the most efficient way to invite the district court to resolve ERISA-benefit claims?

What’s the difference between using Rule 56 motions for summary judgment, versus a Rule 52 Motion for Judgment?

This new case highlights why Rule 52 motions may be the preferred motion to efficiently resolve ERISA benefit claims.  Avenoso v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, __ F.4th __, 2021 WL 5570816 (8th Cir. November 30, 2021)(“‘[S]ummary judgment is inappropriate when the record permits reasonable minds to draw conflicting inferences about a material fact.’” “Parties that wish the district court to exercise its fact finding under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 39(b) or 52(a)(1) to decide the case on the administrative record should ask the district court to do exactly that.”)

FACTS: Avenoso sought ERISA-governed long term disability benefits. The district court granted Avenoso’s motion for summary judgment, and made findings on disputed factual questions when deciding that Avenoso was entitled to benefits under the “any occupation” provision. Reliance Standard appealed.

ISSUE:  Whether, in an ERISA-benefits case, the district court can assess credibility of evidence when ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

EIGHTH CIRCUIT HELD: NO.  District court improperly “weighed the evidence” and credibility in ruling on motion for summary judgment

  1. “[W]here the parties agree that the administrator lacked discretionary authority…[t]he district court reviews the decision of an administrator …de novo, acting as factfinder on the administrative record.” Op. at 6.
  2. Some federal circuits, like the First Circuit Court of Appeals, allow ERISA-benefits cases to be resolved under Rule 56 (motion for summary judgment) because those circuits consider a lawsuit contesting the denial of benefits as “‘simply a vehicle for teeing up the case for decision on the administrative record’ and thus ‘the district court…may weigh the facts’ and ‘resolve conflicts in evidence.’”  Op. at 5. (citing First Circuit case).
  3. But in the Second, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal, “‘summary judgment is inappropriate when the record permits reasonable minds to draw conflicting inferences about a material fact.’” Op. at 5.
  4. “Parties that wish the district court to exercise its fact finding under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 39(b) or 52(a)(1) to decide the case on the administrative record should ask the district court to do exactly that.”  Op. at 8.
  5. “If…a party moves for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, then the district court must follow the procedures outlined in that rule and grant summary judgment only if ‘there is no genuine issue of material fact’ and ‘the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.’”   Op. at 8.
  6. The Eighth Circuit concluded the district court improperly weighed credibility of the evidence when it granted summary judgment. But the Eighth Circuit concluded the district court’s error was “harmless” and affirmed the district court decision granting benefits to Avenoso anyway. Op. at 11.

KEY TAKE AWAY: In most circuits, with cases involving de novo review, the safer practice is to bring Rule 52 motions for judgment, which allows the court to assess the weight and credibility of the evidence and requires the court to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law.