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Collins v. 3M Co.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 11, 2017

Cynthia Collins, Plaintiff,
3M Company, fka Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company, 3M Disability Programs, 3M Disability and Leave Center, and Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc., Defendants.

          Megan A. Spriggs, Esq. and R.A. Williams Law Firm, counsel for plaintiff.

          Christopher M. Busey, Esq., Erin K. Fogarty Lisle, Esq. and Berens & Miller, P.A., counsel for defendants.


          DAVID S. DOTY, JUDGE

         This matter is before the court upon plaintiff's appeal of the September 1, 2017, order of Magistrate Judge David T. Shultz. In the order, the magistrate judge denied plaintiff's request to allow fact and expert discovery.

         The standard of review applicable to an appeal of a magistrate judge's order on nondispositive matters is “extremely deferential.” Reko v. Creative Promotions, Inc., 70 F.Supp.2d 1005, 1007 (D. Minn. 1999). The court will reverse such an order only if it is clearly erroneous or contrary to law. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); D. Minn. LR 72.2(a)(3). After a thorough review of the file and record, the court finds that the order is neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law.


         This insurance benefit dispute arises out of defendants' denial of short-term disability benefits to plaintiff Cynthia Collins, a 3M employee.[1] On June 16, 2016, Collins applied for short-term disability benefits for her absence beginning June 15. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10-13. On July 1, defendant Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc., the claims administrator for 3M's disability plan, denied Collins's claim because she had not submitted the required attending physician statement from her medical provider. Id. ¶ 19. On July 6, 3M received the attending physician statement, but maintained its denial of her claim. See id. ¶¶ 22-23. On July 7, Collins appealed 3M's decision. Id. ¶ 24. During the appeals process, 3M sought a review of Collins's claim by an independent physician advisor, Dr. Daniel Harrop, and informed Collins that he would contact her physician and therapist, or, alternatively, her physician and therapist could call him to schedule a phone conference. Id. ¶¶ 26-27; Spriggs Aff. Ex. C at 17. Collins alleges that although her physician contacted Dr. Harrop on July 19, he never returned the calls or spoke with her physician or therapist. Id. ¶¶ 28-30. On August 16, 3M denied Collins's appeal. Collins brought this suit in state court alleging that 3M wrongfully refused to pay her short-term disability benefits and breached its fiduciary duties. Defendants timely removed the action to this court.

         On July 14, 2017, Collins requested that the magistrate judge grant expert and fact discovery concerning whether a conflict of interest or a serious procedural irregularity existed that affected the administrator's decision. On September 15, the magistrate judge denied the request. Collins now appeals.


         I. Standard for Discovery

         Generally, under ERISA, review of the administrator's decision is “limited to evidence that was before the administrator.” Jones v. ReliaStar Life Ins. Co., 615 F.3d 941, 945 (8th Cir. 2010). “[A]dditional evidence gathering is ruled out on deferential review, and discouraged on de novo review.” Brown v. Seitz Foods, Inc. Disability Benefit Plan, 140 F.3d 1198, 1200 (8th Cir. 1998). But a court may allow additional discovery if the plaintiff shows good cause. Id. A plaintiff can show good cause by establishing that the administrative record is insufficient to establish a “palpable conflict of interest” or a “serious procedural irregularity.” See Farley v. Ark. Blue Cross and Blue Shield, 147 F.3d 774, 776 n.4 (8th Cir. 1998) (“A palpable conflict of interest or serious procedural irregularity will ordinarily be apparent on the face of the administrative record or will be stipulated to by the parties. Thus, the district court will only rarely need to permit discovery and supplementation of the record to establish these facts.”). However, even if a plaintiff can show a conflict of interest or serious procedural irregularity, it does not necessarily entitle a plaintiff to discovery. See Jones, 615 F.3d at 945 (upholding district court's denial of discovery where plan administrator admitted there was a conflict of interest).

         II. Conflict of Interest

         Collins argues that discovery is necessary to determine whether 3M's relationship with Sedgwick constitutes a conflict of interest. Collins relies on two voicemail messages left to Sedgwick by her supervisors inquiring as to the status of her leave and requesting guidance as to how to fill her position. See Spriggs Aff. Ex. C at 9. But there is no evidence that the supervisors attempted to influence Sedgwick to deny Collins's claim. Therefore, her argument rests on mere speculation and fails to show good cause. See Westbrook v. Georgia-Pac. Corp., No. 4:05-CV-01331, 2006 WL 2772822, at *4 (E.D. Ark. Sept. 26, 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted) (“It is not enough to allege generally that a conflict of interest may exist or that the case may have procedural irregularities.”). Even if one could infer a possible conflict of interest from the administrative record, Collins has failed to argue why the record, as currently developed, precludes her from properly pursuing her claim. As already stated, the existence of a possible or actual conflict of interest does not automatically justify additional discovery. See Jones, 615 F.3d at 945 (noting that additional discovery is discouraged even where the court reviews an administrator's decision de novo). Accordingly, the magistrate judge's conclusion that an alleged conflict of interest did not justify discovery was not clearly erroneous or contrary to law.

         III. ...

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