On January 2, 2024, McDermott filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) and the United States Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) in United Behavioral Health v. David K., No. 23-586, in the US Supreme Court. The case presents two questions of broad public importance concerning the requirements under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) for denials of health benefits. But underlying the two questions is an even more fundamental Administrative Procedure Act (APA) issue: May a court, at the invitation of an agency in an amicus brief, effectively amend regulations by judicial fiat, providing the agency with an end run around the APA’s notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures?
The answer to that question should be an obvious no. But that is precisely what happened in the court of appeals in this case. After the plaintiffs filed their response brief, the US Department of Labor (DOL) filed an amicus brief urging a radically new interpretation of regulations the agency had promulgated to implement ERISA’s procedural protections. In essence, the DOL argued that its disability- and health-benefit regulations should be read to contain the same procedural requirements, despite clear regulatory language specifying that some requirements only apply in one context and not the other. The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit adopted the DOL’s position, decreeing a new regulatory requirement for health-benefit denials that the DOL, in dual 2015 and 2016 rulemakings, expressly considered and chose to adopt only for disability-benefit denials and not for health-benefit denials.
If not corrected by the Supreme Court, the decision will stand as an invitation to agencies to file amicus briefs in the courts of appeals, advocating for substantial changes to their regulations without the bother (or transparency) of APA rulemaking. When so much lawmaking today is undertaken by unaccountable federal bureaucrats, that is a deeply troubling prospect. ERIC and the Chamber supported the petition, explaining the legal and practical issues with the approach the DOL and Tenth Circuit mutually took. Agency interpretations that defy clear regulatory text are entitled to no deference because they are invalid (especially after the Court’s decision in Kisor v. Wilkie). Ignoring this basic proposition of administrative law undercuts the core values served by the APA, including transparency and accountability. Most directly, however, an agency’s decision to seek backdoor revisions to its rules through interpretations announced in litigation deprive the agency of the benefit of public comment that can provide critical data and analysis to inform the agency’s policymaking. Had the DOL engaged in notice and comment, as it should have done, commenters would have presented key distinctions between the disability- and health-benefit contexts; without that information, the DOL’s decision was not fully informed.
ERIC and the Chamber are frequent amici in cases concerning ERISA and the APA’s interpretation and requirements. While the Supreme Court grants only a tiny fraction of the petitions it receives each term, the amici are hopeful that this brief will help focus the Court’s attention on this important case.