from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Mississippi
KING, SMITH, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.
E.SMITH, Circuit Judge.
Standard Life Insurance Company ("Reliance")
appeals a judgment granting Juanita Nichols past and future
long-term disability ("LTD") benefits. We reverse
and render judgment for Reliance.
worked for Peco Foods, Inc. ("Peco"), at a chicken
processing plant in Sebastopol, Mississippi, as a Hazard
Analysis Critical Control Point ("HACCP")
Coordinator. Her job routinely exposed her to temperatures
around forty degrees. She stopped working on January 28,
2016, stating that she had developed Raynaud's
phenomenon, a circulatory disorder that could cause gangrene
if she continued working in the cold.
sought benefits through Peco's long-term disability
policy (the "policy" or "plan") issued by
Reliance. That policy is governed by the Employee Retirement
Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C.
§ 1001 et seq., and pays eligible claimants a
percentage of their pre-disability earnings. A claimant is
eligible if he is "Totally Disabled," meaning that
he "cannot perform the material duties of [the] Regular
Occupation" he was performing when total disability
began. The policy defines "Regular
Occupation" as the way the claimant's job "is
normally performed in the national economy" and not the
way it is "performed for a specific employer or in a
Nichols applied for LTD benefits, Reliance considered whether
exposure to the cold was a material duty of her regular
occupation. Reliance engaged Matthew Bolks, a vocational
rehabilitation specialist, to determine Nichols's regular
occupation. Bolks reviewed the application-which described
Nichols's job components as HACCP, Sanitarian Standard
Operating Procedures ("SSOP"), and Good
Manufacturing Practices Procedures for the plant- and a
submission from Peco that confirmed Nichols's job title
as HACCP Coordinator and listed her job duties. That list did
not specify that Nichols was required to work in the cold.
Comparing Nichols's application and the Peco job duties
with the Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational
Titles ("DOT"), Bolks concluded that Nichols's
regular occupation was "Sanitarian." The material
duties of the occupation of sanitarian, as defined by the
DOT, include neither employment at a poultry processing
facility nor exposure to the cold.
Bolks's assessment, Reliance denied Nichols's
application for LTD benefits via letter, explaining that she
"retain[ed] the ability to perform the material[ ]
duties of [her] occupation." Reliance acknowledged that
Nichols could not be exposed to cold temperatures and that
her job for Peco required her to work in cold areas. But it
determined that her regular occupation of sanitarian,
"as it is typically performed in the national
economy," did not require working in the cold.
"[A]ny requirements regarding work in a cold
environment," Reliance elaborated, were "job-site
specific." Reliance concluded that Nichols was not
"precluded from performing [her] regular
occupation" and thus did not meet the policy's
definition of "Totally Disabled."
letter told Nichols that she had the right to appeal, and she
timely did, emphasizing that her condition "prohibited
[her] from working in cold environments," as required by
her "regular job duties as HACCP Coordinator." She
did not contend that an alternative DOT entry would encompass
her job duties better than did the sanitarian entry.
its appellate review, Reliance engaged Sharon Xu, M.D.,
independently to assess Nichols's physical capabilities.
Xu determined that Nichols "ha[d] much less of a
physical capacity limitation and more of an environmental
limitation." "In the proper work environment,"
Xu continued, "[Nichols] should be able to perform all
activities . . . [but] this would be in an environment where
there [are] normal room temperatures and not one with
exposures to cold temperatures." Xu found, however, that
Nichols "suffer[ed] from a significant impairment when
exposed to the cold environment as part of the regular duties
of her job."
consulted a second vocational review specialist, Jody Barach,
who confirmed that Nichols's job at Peco fell within the
"regular occupation" of sanitarian as defined by
the DOT. Barach noted the environmental limitations that Xu
had identified but concluded that Nichols's
"physical restrictions . . . [we]re consistent with the
physical demands of a Sanitarian. Any exposure to cold
temperatures would be job-site specific." Thus, Barach
summarized, "there [we]re no restrictions or limitations
that would preclude Ms. Nichols from performing her Regular
Occupation." Reliance accordingly affirmed the denial of
LTD benefits, explaining to Nichols "that while [she
was] limited in [her] ability to work in colder temperatures,
this [wa]s a condition specific to Peco Foods, Inc., and not
[her] occupation as a Sanitarian."
sued Reliance under ERISA, seeking to "recover [LTD]
benefits due," 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), and
contending that Reliance had abused its discretion in denying
them because she "was clearly unable to perform the
essential duties of her occupation." Reliance moved for
summary judgment. In less than two pages of substantive
response, Nichols urged the district court to "take
judicial notice" that the facilities where chicken is
processed must be kept cold. She also averred that she was
entitled to benefits because "a HACCP Coordinator in any
chicken processing facility around the world is going to have
to work in cold environments."
decide the motion, the district court focused on "
whether Reliance's denial was supported by substantial
evidence, and  whether Reliance has a conflict of
interest." Nichols v. Reliance Stand. Life Ins.
Co., No. 3:17-CV-42-CWR-FKB, 2018 WL 3213618, at *3
(S.D.Miss. June 29, 2018). Regarding the first factor, the
court held that Reliance's determination "that
exposure to cold temperatures was not among the 'material
duties' of Nichols' 'regular occupation' . .
. is not based on a fair estimate of the record
evidence." Id. at *4. The court opined that
"Nichols' specific job duties, as described by
[Peco], fell into three categories." Id.
"[W]herever Nichols' job was performed in
the national economy," the court explained, "it
would require her to perform  sanitary-training duties,
 meat inspection duties, and  meat packaging
duties." Id. (emphasis added).
thus erred, the district court continued, by defining
Nichols's regular occupation based only on her
sanitary-training duties. Id. Noting that a
different DOT title-"Cooler Room Worker (Meat
Products)"-"best captures Nichols' meat
inspection and packaging duties," the court found that
work in the cold was a material duty of Nichols's regular
occupation. Id. at *4-5 (quotation at *4). It
concluded that Reliance's denial of benefits "was
unsupported by any evidence, let alone substantial
evidence." Id. at *5 (emphasis added).
district court next observed that the existence of a conflict
stemming from an insurer's role as issuer and
administrator is an important factor in reviewing for abuse
of discretion, particularly "when there is evidence that
an insurer has a 'history of biased claims
administration.'" Id. at *6 (quoting
Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105, 117
(2008)). The court thus "conducted a cumbersome review
of judicial opinions addressing Reliance's behave-ior in
disability cases" and found "over 60 opinions
reversing a decision [of Reliance's] as an abuse of
discretion." Id.; see also id. at *6
n.79 (collecting citations). Those cases demonstrated that
"[c]ourts in every federal circuit have repeatedly
criticized [Reliance's] claims management
practices." Id. at *8. The district court
specifically found that "Reliance has been admonished
for reflex-ively using [DOT] while having clearly ignored the
actual duties of a claimant's job." Id.
district court summarized that "[t]he fact that
Reliance's decision to deny Nichols benefits was devoid
of evidentiary support is enough to prove that the decision
was an abuse of discretion," but "Reliance's
long past of biased and wrongful claims denials in defiance
of countless judicial warnings . . . simply underscores this
conclusion." Id. at *9. The court consequently
denied the motion for summary judgment, reversed
"[Reliance's] decision to deny Nichols
benefits," and ordered Reliance to pay Nichols both past
and future benefits and "a reasonable attorney's
fee." Id. at *9-10.
review a summary judgment de novo, "applying
the same legal standards that controlled the district
court's decision." White v. Life Ins. Co. of N.
Am., 892 F.3d 762, 767 (5th Cir. 2018). Summary judgment
is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P.
an ERISA plan lawfully delegates discretionary authority to
the plan administrator, a court reviewing the denial of a
claim is limited to assessing whether the administrator
abused that discretion." Ariana M. v. Humana Health
Plan of Tex., Inc., 884 F.3d 246, 247 (5th Cir. 2018)
(en banc) (citing Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v.
Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989)). The plan gives
Reliance such discretion, so we review its denial of
Nichols's claim for abuse of discretion. "An ERISA
claimant bears the burden to show ...