Jordan v. Northrop Grumman Corp., 370 F.3d 869 (9th Cir. 2004)

Vicki Jordan worked as a senior administrative secretary for Northrop from 1984 to 1995 at which time she applied for long-term disability benefits following her diagnosis with fibromyalgia — a syndrome whose cause is unknown and symptoms are entirely subjective. Northrop’s plan administrator denied Jordan’s disability claim after determining that her “condition is not of such severity as to preclude [her] ability to work at [her] sedentary occupation” as a secretary. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that Northrop’s ERISA plan administrator is entitled to deferential review and, in any event, did not arbitrarily deny benefits to Jordan. The Court held that the administrator did not have a “serious conflict of interest” sufficient to breach its fiduciary duty to Jordan even though it had demanded “objective” proof of a medical condition that cannot be objectively established. Of particular importance to the Court’s determination was the fact that Jordan’s physicians had failed to respond to repeated requests for explanations of why her fibromyalgia disabled her from working.  Cf. Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 124 S. Ct. 2488 (2004) (statelaw claims against HMOs for failure to exercise ordinary care when making health-care treatment decisions were completely preempted by ERISA and removable to federal court).