United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Gregory J. Johnson, Plaintiff,
G&K Services, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan and Reliastar Life Insurance Company, Defendants.
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Wilhelmina M. Wright United States District Judge
matter is before the Court on the September 27, 2017 Report
and Recommendation (R&R) of United States Magistrate
Judge Katherine M. Menendez. (Dkt. 79.) The R&R
recommends granting the motion for summary judgment of
Defendants G&K Services, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan
and Reliastar Life Insurance Company and denying Plaintiff
Gregory J. Johnson's cross-motion for summary judgment.
Johnson filed timely objections to the R&R, and the
Defendants responded. For the reasons addressed below, the
Court overrules Johnson's objections and adopts the
relevant factual and procedural background is addressed in
detail in the R&R and need not be repeated at length here
to address Johnson's objections to the R&R.
issued Group Policy No. 67459-1LTD (Policy) to G&K
Services to provide, as relevant here, disability benefits
for the employees of G&K Services. Johnson worked for
G&K Services as a Data Services Manager until he
submitted a claim to Reliastar for short-term disability
benefits after experiencing symptoms of nausea, dizziness,
and headaches. After paying Johnson the maximum amount of
short-term disability benefits, Reliastar transferred
Johnson's file to its long-term disability department.
Because Reliastar ultimately determined that Johnson did not
meet the definition of “disability” under the
Policy, Reliastar advised Johnson that his benefits would
terminate effective August 1, 2013. Johnson appealed, and
Reliastar upheld its determination. Following a second appeal
by Johnson, Reliastar issued its final decision denying
long-term disability benefits on August 27, 2014.
subsequently commenced this litigation, alleging that
Defendants failed to properly pay him disability benefits
pursuant to the Policy, in violation of the Employee
Retirement Income Security Program (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §
1132(a)(1)(B). The Court denied without prejudice the
parties' initial cross-motions for summary judgment after
discovering that the relevant insurance policy was not in the
administrative record. After the parties supplemented the
administrative record with the Policy and stipulated that the
Policy required de novo review of Reliastar's decision to
deny Johnson long-term disability benefits, the Court
referred the parties' renewed cross-motions for summary
judgment to Magistrate Judge Menendez.
September 27, 2017, Magistrate Judge Menendez issued an
R&R recommending that the Court grant Defendants'
motion for summary judgment and deny Johnson's
cross-motion for summary judgment because Johnson failed to
establish by a preponderance of the evidence that he was
disabled under the terms of the Policy. Johnson objects to
the R&R. Defendants counter that the R&R should be
adopted in full.
judgment is proper when the record establishes that there is
“no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and
the moving party is “entitled to judgment as a matter
of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to a
material fact exists when “the evidence is such that a
reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving
party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When deciding a motion for summary
judgment, the Court considers the evidence in the light most
favorable to the nonmoving party, drawing all reasonable
inferences in that party's favor. See
Windstream Corp. v. Da Gragnano, 757 F.3d 798,
802-03 (8th Cir. 2014). When asserting that a fact is
genuinely disputed, the nonmoving party must cite
“particular parts of materials in the record”
that support the assertion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A);
accord Krenik v. Cty. of Le Sueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957
(8th Cir. 1995).
as here, an ERISA benefits plan does not require deference to
the plan administrator's decision, the Court conducts a
de novo review. Groves v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 438
F.3d 872, 873-74 (8th Cir. 2006). A plaintiff must establish
disability by a preponderance of the evidence within the
meaning of the governing plan. Morgan v. UNUM Life Ins.
Co. of Am., 346 F.3d 1173, 1177 (8th Cir. 2003);
Farley v. Benefit Tr. Life Ins. Co., 979 F.2d 653,
658 (8th Cir. 1992).
objects on two grounds, first, that the R&R contravenes
Marolt v. Alliant Techsystems, Inc., 146 F.3d 617
(8th Cir. 1998), and, second, that the R&R fails to
assess Johnson's credibility thereby impermissibly
limiting its analysis to the medical evidence in the
administrative record. The Court reviews each objection de
novo. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C);
Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); LR 72.2(b)(3); Grinder v.
Gammon, 73 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (per curiam).
Application of Marolt
parties dispute the application of Marolt and its
effect on this proceeding. Because Reliastar did not provide
Johnson timely and specific notice of the reasons for its
decision to deny Johnson long-term disability benefits,
Johnson contends, this litigation must be remanded pursuant
to Marolt. Defendants counter that Marolt
applies only when the denial of benefits is reviewed for an
abuse of discretion and, even if Marolt applied, a
remand is not necessary because Johnson received three
“comprehensive benefit letters that explained the
governing plan provisions, the evidence that was submitted
and considered for review, and the specific reasons for the
benefit denial.” Johnson's reliance on
Marolt is misplaced. In Marolt, the Eighth
Circuit affirmed a district court's determination that a
plan administrator abused its discretion when it denied
benefits without providing the claimant any rationale for its
decision. 146 F.3d at 620. The Eighth Circuit reasoned,
“[w]e will not permit ERISA claimants denied the timely
and specific explanation to which the law entitles them to be
sandbagged by after-the-fact plan interpretations devised for
purposes of litigation.” Id. But here, unlike
in Marolt, Johnson's benefit denial is reviewed
de novo. See Hillstrom v. Kenefick, 484 F.3d 519,
528 (8th Cir. 2007) (“[W]e have held that upon de novo
review of a denial of benefits, a trial court must
consider all of the provisions of the policy in question . .
. even where not relied upon by the plan administrator at the
time the denial was made.” (internal quotation marks
omitted)). The timing and rationale of Reliastar's
initial decision are not relevant under de novo review
because the Court's decision need not be tethered to that
of the plan administrator. See Hillstrom v.
Kenefick, No. 04-3820, 2005 WL 2271932, at *6 (D. Minn.
Sept. 19, 2005) (rejecting application of Marolt
when reviewing an ERISA claim de novo), aff'd
484 F.2d 519 (8th Cir. 2007). Marolt is inapplicable
in this context, and Johnson's objection on this ground