11th Circuit Rules on Commencement of Statute of Limitations on ERISA Claim for Benefits

In Witt v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. 14-11349¸ 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 22321 (11th Cir. Nov. 25, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit recently considered when the statute of limitations begins to run on a claim for benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). In January 1997, Plaintiff submitted a claim for disability benefits from 1995. Met Life approved the claim and granted retroactive benefits. However, Met Life also notified Witt that he might be required to submit periodic proof of continuing disability to continue receiving benefits. Met Life terminated Witt’s benefits in May 1997 for failure to provide supporting medical records. Witt denied receiving the denial letter or any request for records.

In May 2009, Witt’s attorney requested a status update on Witt’s claim. Met Life reviewed the file and notified Witt in January 2010 that his claim had been terminated in 1997 for failure to provide proof of continuing disability and that if he wished to have his claim reviewed for benefits beyond May 1997, he would need to submit supporting medical documentation. Witt’s attorney provided supporting documents in February 2011. Met Life reviewed the file and notified Witt in March 2011 that his claim for benefits would remain terminated.

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Witt filed suit against Met Life and the Plan in June 2012. The defendants moved for judgment on the grounds that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. The district court granted the motion and Witt appealed.

Because ERISA does not specify a limitations period for a claim for ERISA benefits, district courts apply the forum state’s limitation period for the most closely analogous cause of action. The parties did not dispute that the district court properly applied Alabama’s six-year statute of limitations. The Court concluded that because Witt filed his action more than 14 years after the statute of limitations commenced, his claim was time-barred.

Consistent with three other circuits, the Eleventh Circuit found that an ERISA cause of action may accrue prior to a final or formal denial of the plaintiff’s claim and that in the absence of a final or formal denial letter, the claim accrues and the limitations period begins to run when the claimant has reason to know the claim administrator has clearly repudiated the claim or the amount sought. Thus, the Court concluded that even assuming Witt did not receive the 1997 termination letter, by failing to provide benefits after May 1997, Met Life demonstrated clear and continuing repudiation of Witt’s rights. The Court noted that even if an entire year of unpaid benefits was required to find Met Life’s conduct constituted a clear and continuing repudiation of Witt’s claim, Witt would have had reason to know of the repudiation at least by May 1998, and the statute of limitations would have expired in May 2004 at the latest.

Debbie SmithBW resizedPrepared by Deborah Alley Smith