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Written by: Leasa M. Stewart

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in an ERISA-governed long term disability benefits case, Heimeshoff vs. Hartford Life and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (Case Number 12-729). The plaintiff in the case has asked the Court to hold that a limitations period on filing suit cannot begin to run until a claimant has exhausted the administrative review that must be provided for under ERISA. During oral argument, Justice Stephen Breyer specifically asked what problems carriers would face if the court held that claimants must be able to exhaust the internal appeals process before the statute of limitations period on suits can start. Such a holding would drastically change current law and might negate ERISA plan terms which expressly provide a time limit for filing suit that begins at a time different than when the internal appeals process is exhausted, such as from the time proof of loss is required under the plan. As pointed out by Hartford Life’s counsel at oral argument, such a holding would undermine Congress’s goal of wanting to assure employers the courts will respect ERISA plan terms. Practically speaking, declaring that time limits to file suit cannot begin to run until internal appeals have been exhausted would also promote uncertainty in the process as the exhaustion date is not always an easy date to determine. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will decide to continue to respect ERISA plan terms and allow employers the freedom to contract for the limitations period they would like a plan to have.