Seyfarth Synopsis: The DOL has waded into a long-simmering debate about whether audio recordings of phone calls between a plan participant and the plan’s administrator or insurer should be provided to the participant when challenging a benefit determination under the plan, and they have come down squarely on the side of the participant. 

A recent DOL information letter lays out the Department’s view that audio recordings are considered relevant documents that plan administrators, insurers, and third party administrators must provide to a claimant upon request, regardless of how the recording is used in the course of plan administration or a benefit determination.

The DOL’s position was expressed in response to a claimant’s request for an advisory opinion after a claims administrator denied the claimant’s request for audio recordings of a phone call  associated with an adverse benefits determination. The DOL felt that this issue was best addressed through an information letter (as opposed to an advisory opinion) as it invoked established principles under ERISA, which would apply more broadly than to the discreet facts of the claimant’s situation.

In the claimant’s situation, the administrator made a transcript of the call available as an alternative to the audio recording.  It asserted that it was not obligated to provide the actual recordings because they were “not created, maintained, or relied upon for claim administration purposes” and were instead made “for quality assurance purposes.”

In addressing the matter, the DOL turned to its long-standing claims regulations under ERISA Section 503.  These regulations require that a claimant be provided with copies of all documents, records and other information “relevant” to the claim for benefits. The DOL was not persuaded by the claims administrator’s arguments that the phone recordings were not relevant, and it cited to two parts of 29 CFR 2560.503-1(m)(8) in its assertion that audio recordings are indeed relevant records that should be provided to claimants.

  • First, in response to the plan administrator’s argument that the recordings were “not relied upon for claim administration purposes,” the DOL cites 29 CFR 2560.503-1(m)(8)(ii). This section notes that a record is considered relevant if it “was submitted, considered, or generated in the course of making the benefit determination, without regard to whether such document, record, or other information was relied upon in making the benefit determination.” (emphasis added). With this, the DOL is not concerned with whether the recording was used in the course of the benefit determination. Rather, if a recording was generated in the course of a benefit determination, then it is considered relevant and should be produced by the applicable plan administrator, insurer, or third party administrator.
  • Second, in response to the plan administrator’s argument that the recordings were made for quality assurance purposes, the DOL cites 29 CFR 2560.503-1(m)(8)(iii). This section notes that a record is considered relevant if it “demonstrates compliance with the administrative processes and safeguards required pursuant to” the plan’s claims procedures.  Relevance is further established if the record can be used as an administrative safeguard that verifies consistent decision making under a plan. The plan administrator’s quality assurance argument ironically works against the administrator because an audio recording made for the purposes of quality assurance and plan consistency falls squarely into the definition of section (m)(8)(iii) and, therefore, renders the recording relevant. As such, an administrator’s attempt to argue withholding on the basis of quality assurance will be futile and the recording should be produced to the claimant.

Further, the DOL shot down any argument that relevant records include only paper or other written materials, saying that the preamble to their recent amendments to the regulations makes it clear that audio recordings can be part of the administrative record.

Overall, the information letter shines a spotlight on the common practice of insurers and third party administrators to deny access to audio recordings, often even to representatives of the plan administrator. Looking forward, plan administrators should work with their vendors and review the terms of their service agreements to ensure that any requests for relevant documents, records, or information are reviewed under this broad definition and appropriately provided to the claimant upon request. Not doing so risks non-compliance with the DOL regulations and potentially the imposition of substantial penalties if challenged in court.