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Westbrook v. Georgia-Pacific Corp.

September 26, 2006

HENRY WESTBROOK PLAINTIFF
v.
GEORGIA-PACIFIC CORPORATION AND METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garnett Thomas Eisele United States District Judge

ORDER

Two motions filed by Plaintiff Henry Westbrook are before the Court, including:

(1) Plaintiff's Motion for Limited Discovery; and

(2) Plaintiff's Motion for Bench Trial.

Defendants Georgia-Pacific Corporation ("GP" or "Georgia Pacific") and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife") have responded to both motions. This Order resolves both motions.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Henry Westbrook alleges in his Complaint that he is completely disabled, but that GP, the Plan Administrator of a Welfare Benefit Plan administered by GP, has refused to pay him long term disability benefits to which he is entitled and has also refused to continue his life insurance. Plaintiff also alleges in his Complaint that GP failed to produce copies of all Plan documents, as requested by Plaintiff's counsel. (See letters attached to Complaint).

In Count I of the Complaint, Plaintiff seeks an Order reinstating his benefits, awarding him past benefits, and continuing his life insurance. In Count II of the Complaint, Plaintiff claims that he is entitled to a statutory penalty pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132 for GP's failure to properly respond to his request for information.

On April 21, 2006, the Court entered an Order permitting MetLife to intervene as a defendant in the case based on its status as the Claims Administrator for the ERISA plan at issue.

On June 5, 2006, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. Therein, Defendants contend that while the Plan is self-funded by GP, GP designated to MetLife the "responsibility and discretionary authority for determining eligibility for disability benefits and for construing Plan terms." Defendants assert that the Court must review MetLife's decision to deny disability benefits by applying a deferential abuse of discretion standard of review. Defendants contend that Plaintiff failed to prove that, due to his back problems, he is disabled from "any gainful occupation" as defined in the Plan and that substantial evidence in the record supports MetLife's decision to terminate Plaintiff's claim for LTD benefits.

Plaintiff has not responded to the Defendants' summary judgment motion. Instead, Plaintiff filed a motion requesting a thirty extension of time to respond following the Court's ruling on Plaintiff's request for limited discovery. Defendants filed a response indicating that they did not oppose the requested extension, but requested that this Court postpone consideration of Plaintiff's discovery request pending the Eighth Circuit's ruling in an appeal from a decision issued by the Honorable Leon Holmes in Faulkner v. MetLife, 4:05-CV-1313 (hereinafter, "the Faulkner case).

Judge Holmes addressed a similar discovery issue in the Faulkner case, supra:

Regardless of whether it would have an effect on the standard of review in this case, [the plaintiff] is entitled to know whether the review conducted by MetLife in his case complied with MetLife's internal guidelines and policies, if such guidelines and policies exist. Federal regulations provide that "[i]n the case of an adverse benefit determination on review, the plan administrator shall provide such access to, and copies of, documents, records, and other information" "relevant to the claimant's claim for benefits." 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1(i)(5) and (j)(3).

Faulkner, Order of December 5, 2005, Docket No 10. The parties thereafter became entangled in a dispute over whether MetLife was entitled to a protective order before producing the limited documents MetLife had been directed to produce. Judge Holmes denied MetLife's request for a protective order. (Faulkner, Orders dated March 1, 2006 and March 21, 2006). ...


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