Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, No. 02-469.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtGinsburg
Citation538 U.S. 822
PartiesBLACK & DECKER DISABILITY PLAN v. NORD.
Docket NumberNo. 02-469.
Decision Date27 May 2003
538 U.S. 822
BLACK & DECKER DISABILITY PLAN
v.
NORD.
No. 02-469.
Supreme Court of United States.
Argued April 28, 2003.
Decided May 27, 2003.

Petitioner Black & Decker Disability Plan (Plan), an employee welfare benefit plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), provides benefits for eligible disabled employees of Black & Decker Corporation (Black & Decker) and certain of its subsidiaries. Black & Decker is the administrator of the Plan but has delegated authority to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife) to render initial recommendations on benefit claims. Respondent Nord, an employee of a Black & Decker subsidiary, submitted a claim for disability benefits under the Plan, which MetLife denied. At MetLife's review stage, Nord submitted letters and supporting documentation from his physician, Dr. Hartman, and a treating orthopedist to whom Hartman had referred Nord. These treating physicians stated that Nord suffered from a degenerative disc disease and chronic pain that rendered him unable to work. Black & Decker referred Nord to a neurologist for an independent examination. The neurologist concluded that, aided by pain medication, Nord could perform sedentary work. MetLife thereafter made a final recommendation to deny Nord's claim, which Black & Decker accepted. Seeking to overturn that determination, Nord filed this action under ERISA. The District Court granted summary judgment for the Plan, concluding that Black & Decker's denial of Nord's claim was not an abuse of the plan administrator's discretion. The Ninth Circuit reversed and itself granted summary judgment for Nord. The Court of Appeals explained that the case was controlled by a recent Ninth Circuit decision holding that, when making benefit determinations, ERISA plan administrators must follow a "treating physician rule." As described by the appeals court, that rule required a plan administrator who rejects the opinions of a claimant's treating physician to come forward with specific reasons for the decision, based on substantial evidence in the record. The Ninth Circuit found that, under this rule, the plan administrator had not provided adequate justification for rejecting the opinions of Nord's treating physicians.

Held: ERISA does not require plan administrators to accord special deference to the opinions of treating physicians. The "treating physician rule" imposed by the Ninth Circuit was originally developed by Courts

[538 U.S. 823]

of Appeals as a means to control disability determinations by administrative law judges under the Social Security Act. In 1991, the Commissioner of Social Security adopted regulations approving and formalizing use of the rule in the Social Security disability program. Nothing in ERISA or the Secretary of Labor's ERISA regulations, however, suggests that plan administrators must accord special deference to the opinions of treating physicians, or imposes a heightened burden of explanation on administrators when they reject a treating physician's opinion. If the Secretary found it meet to adopt a treating physician rule by regulation, courts would examine that determination with appropriate deference. See Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837. But the Secretary has not chosen that course and an amicus brief reflecting the Department of Labor's position opposes adoption of such a rule for disability determinations under plans covered by ERISA. Whether a treating physician rule would increase the accuracy of ERISA disability determinations, as the Ninth Circuit believed it would, is a question that the Legislature or superintending administrative agency is best positioned to address. Finally, and of prime importance, critical differences between the Social Security disability program and ERISA benefit plans caution against importing a treating physician rule from the former area into the latter. By accepting and codifying such a rule, the Social Security Commissioner sought to serve the need for efficient administration of an obligatory nationwide benefits program. In contrast, nothing in ERISA requires employers to establish employee benefits plans or mandates what kind of benefits employers must provide if they choose to have such a plan. Lockheed Corp. v. Spink, 517 U. S. 882, 887. Rather, employers have large leeway to design disability and other welfare plans as they see fit. In determining entitlement to Social Security benefits, the adjudicator measures the claimant's condition against a uniform set of federal criteria. The validity of a claim to benefits under an ERISA plan, on the other hand, is likely to turn, in large part, on the interpretation of terms in the plan at issue. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U. S. 101, 115. Deference is due the Labor Secretary's stated view that ERISA is best served by preserving the greatest flexibility possible for operating claims processing systems consistent with a plan's prudent administration. Plan administrators may not arbitrarily refuse to credit a claimant's reliable evidence, including the opinions of a treating physician. But courts have no warrant to require administrators automatically to accord special weight to the opinions of a claimant's physician;

[538 U.S. 824]

nor may courts impose on administrators a discrete burden of explanation when they credit reliable evidence that conflicts with a treating physician's evaluation. Pp. 829-834.

296 F. 3d 823, vacated and remanded.

GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Lee T. Paterson argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were John R. Ates, Amanda C. Sommerfeld, and William G. Bruner III.

Lisa Schiavo Blatt argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Olson, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Howard M. Radzely, Allen H. Feldman, Nathaniel I. Spiller, and Mark S. Flynn.

Lawrence D. Rohlfing argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Eric Schnapper.*

[538 U.S. 825]

JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.


Under a rule adopted by the Commissioner of Social Security, in determining whether a claimant is entitled to Social Security disability benefits, special weight is accorded opinions of the claimant's treating physician. See 20 CFR §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2) (2002). This case presents the question whether a similar "treating physician rule" applies to disability determinations under employee benefits plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA or Act), 88 Stat. 832, as amended, 29 U. S. C. § 1001 et seq. We hold that plan administrators are not obliged to accord special deference to the opinions of treating physicians.

ERISA and the Secretary of Labor's regulations under the Act require "full and fair" assessment of claims and clear communication to the claimant of the "specific reasons" for benefit denials. See 29 U. S. C. § 1133; 29 CFR § 2560.503-1 (2002). But these measures do not command plan administrators to credit the opinions of treating physicians over other evidence relevant to the claimant's medical condition. Because the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit erroneously applied a "treating physician rule" to a disability plan governed by ERISA, we vacate that court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I

Petitioner Black & Decker Disability Plan (Plan), an ERISA-governed employee welfare benefit plan, covers employees of Black & Decker Corporation (Black & Decker) and certain of its subsidiaries. The Plan provides benefits for eligible employees with a "disability." As relevant here, the Plan defines "disability" to mean "the complete inability ... of a Participant to engage in his regular occupation with

538 U.S. 826

the Employer."1 296 F. 3d 823, 826, n. 2 (CA9 2002). Black & Decker both funds the Plan and acts as plan administrator, but it has delegated authority to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife) to render initial recommendations on benefit claims. Disability determinations, the Black & Decker Plan provides, "[are to] be made by the [plan administrator] based on suitable medical evidence and a review of the Participant's employment history that the [plan administrator] deems satisfactory in its sole and absolute discretion." Id., at 826, n. 1.

Respondent Kenneth L. Nord was formerly employed by a Black & Decker subsidiary as a material planner. His job, classed "sedentary," required up to six hours of sitting and two hours of standing or walking per day. Id., at 826.

In 1997, Nord consulted Dr. Leo Hartman about hip and back pain. Dr. Hartman determined that Nord suffers from a mild degenerative disc disease, a diagnosis confirmed by a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan. After a week's trial on pain medication prescribed by Dr. Hartman, Nord's condition remained unimproved. Dr. Hartman told Nord to cease work temporarily, and recommended that he consult an orthopedist while continuing to take the pain medication.

Nord submitted a claim for disability benefits under the Plan, which MetLife denied in February 1998. Nord next exercised his right to seek further consideration by MetLife's "Group Claims Review." Id., at 827. At that stage, Nord submitted letters and supporting documentation from Dr. Hartman and a treating orthopedist to whom Hartman had referred Nord. Nord also submitted a questionnaire form, drafted by Nord's counsel, headed "Work Capacity Evaluation." Black & Decker human resources representative

538 U.S. 827

Janmarie Forward answered the questions, as the form instructed, by the single word "yes" or "no." One of the six items composing the "Work Capacity Evaluation" directed Forward to "[a]ssume that Kenneth Nord would have a moderate pain that would interfere with his ability to perform...

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    ...“employers have large leeway to design disability and other welfare plans as they see fit.” Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 833, 123 S.Ct. 1965, 155 L.Ed.2d 1034 (2003). Although ERISA does not “require[ ] a welfare plan to contain a subrogation clause[,]” it also ......
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    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (8th Circuit)
    • July 22, 2005
    ...Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)), abrogated on other grounds by Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 123 S.Ct. 1965, 155 L.Ed.2d 1034 (2003). When reviewing a denial of benefits by an administrator who has discretion under an ERISA-regulate......
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    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Central District of California
    • December 20, 2012
    ...plan. See Lockheed Corp. v. Spink, 517 U.S. 882, 887, 116 S.Ct. 1783, 135 L.Ed.2d 153 (1996); Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 833, 123 S.Ct. 1965, 155 L.Ed.2d 1034 (2003). ERISA § 502, codified as Civil Enforcement at 29 U.S.C. § 1132, authorizes various people and ent......
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    ...benefits determinations made in the first instance by a corps of administrative law judges." Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 833, 123 S. Ct. 1965, 1971, 155 L. Ed. 2d 1034 (2003) (internal citations omitted). The Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide a sufficient ......
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