When and under what circumstances an insurer paying long-term disability benefits may collect retroactive benefits paid to an ERISA plan participant under the Social Security Act has been the source of conflicting opinions over the years. The most recent pronouncement: a long-term disability plan administrators must “specifically identify a particular fund” from which it will be reimbursed in order to seek to recover of alleged overpayment of disability benefits. So held the Southern District of California in its recent plaintiff-friendly decision in Wong v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135661 (S.D. Cal. 2014). Through its decision in Wong, the district court reaffirmed that simply because an ERISA governed long-term disability plan’s language provides for recovery of an award of back-dated SSDI benefits does not mean that an insurance company may seek reimbursement from an insured’s general assets. Instead, the onus is on the insurer to specifically identify specific funds, separate from a plan participant’s general assets, on which it may place an attachment.
In Wong, the plan a participant was initially granted benefits under her ERISA governed long-term disability plan. However, the plan administrator, Aetna, repeatedly denied and then reinstated her benefits. After the third denial, the plan participant filed an appeal with Aetna, which was subsequently denied. However, while she was still on claim, Aetna had advised her to apply for Social Security benefits, which was eventually approved and the Social Security Administration also agreed to back-date her award for over a year. However, very soon after being approved for the award, Aetna contacted the plan participant and asserted that it was entitled to reimbursement of the retroactive SSDI benefits she received.
Following Aetna’s demand for reimbursement, the plan participant filed an ERISA action seeking benefits owed to her. Aetna in turn filed a counterclaim seeking recovery for the retroactive social security benefits received by the plan participant. First, as to the plan participant’s claim, the court concluded that it was unreasonable and an abuse of discretion for Aetna to terminate the plan participant’s benefits. Second, and more significantly, the court held that Aetna may not retroactively attach the plan participant’s social security benefits because it failed to meet the necessary criteria for seeking overpayment. In reaching its holding, the court explained that there are “at least three criteria” that a plan administrator must satisfy in order to recover the overpayment:
First, there must be a promise by the beneficiary to reimburse the fiduciary for benefits paid under the plan in the event of a recovery from a third party. Second, the reimbursement agreement must specifically identify a particular fund, distinct from the beneficiary’s general assets, from which the fiduciary will be reimbursed. Third, the funds specifically identified by the fiduciary must be within the possession and control of the [beneficiary]. (internal quotations omitted).
Here, as in most plans, the first criteria is satisfied because, as the plan participant did not dispute that she contracted to reimburse overpayment of benefits to Aetna. However, the court held that Aetna did not satisfy second criteria. The court focused on the fact that the Social Security Act provides that “none of the moneys paid or payable or rights existing under this [Social Security] subchapter shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process.” As such, although Aetna attempted to do so, the court found that Aetna could not identify the SSDI benefits as themselves a particular fund because they had already been paid. Furthermore, Aetna did not dispute that the long-term disability benefits had already been spent by the plan participant. As such, the court held that Aetna is not permitted to attach the plan participant’s SSDI benefits because it could not identify a fund distinct from her general assets that permits such an attachment.
This decision demonstrates that simply because a plan participant contracted to reimburse an insurer for an overpayment does not mean that the plan has an unfettered ability to seek recovery of overpaid benefits. Indeed, especially in the case of retroactive social security benefits, the insurance company may well be unable to meet its burden of identifying particular fund from which it can properly be reimbursed. Plan participants and beneficiaries can take some solace from this decision.