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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS: Six named plaintiffs, all workers who formerly performed services for Mobil Corp. while on the payroll of third-party companies, filed this class action complaint seeking retroactive employment benefits from Exxon-Mobil Corp. and other defendants, after the merger of Mobil Corp. and Exxon Corp., pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. HOLDING: Affirmed. ERISA authorizes the district court to review a denial of a claim for benefits, but the statute provides no guidance on the appropriate standard of review for the courts. Vega v. Nat’l Life Ins. Serv. Co., 188 F.3d 287 (5th Cir. 1999) (en banc). Where a plan administrator has been vested with the discretionary authority to interpret a benefit plan, a district court reviews the administrator’s interpretations only for abuse of discretion. Vega states, “our review of the administrator’s decision need not be particularly complex or technical; it need only assure that the administrator’s decision fall somewhere on a continuum of reasonableness � even if on the low end.” Where, however, an administrator’s decision is tainted by a conflict of interest, the court employs a “sliding scale” to evaluating whether there was an abuse of discretion. This approach does not mark a change in the applicable standard, but only requires the court to reduce the amount of deference it provides to an administrator’s decision. The degree to which a court must abrogate its deference to the administrator depends on the extent to which the challenging party has succeeded in substantiating its claim that there is a conflict. Where only “a minimal basis for a conflict is established, the court reviews the decision with ‘only a modicum less deference than we otherwise would.’” Lain v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of Am., 279 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Vega). Plaintiffs concede that the administrator has the discretion and final authority to determine eligibility for benefits and that the abuse of discretion standard applies. Plaintiffs nonetheless maintain that, because of an apparent conflict of interest, the district court did not sufficiently apply “closer judicial scrutiny” to the administrator’s decision, thus failing to apply the sliding scale standard correctly. This assertion does not merit reversal. Even if, arguendo, there were a conflict of interest, the district court recognized it and applied the appropriate standard of review. Plaintiffs’ claim is contradicted by two statements the district court made in its summary judgment order. First, it announced the above rule from Vega and acknowledged that an apparent conflict may exist because “Exxon-Mobil administers its own plan.” The court then correctly stated that this is a factor to be considered in its assessment of whether there was an abuse of discretion. Plaintiffs argue that the district court erred in requiring evidence that the conflict had an effect before it would apply the sliding scale. It is apparent from the court’s opinion, however, that it did abrogate its deference in consideration of the first claim of a conflict of interest, and only refused to slide further down the scale on the basis of a second, unsubstantiated claim that the administrator was conflicted. Plaintiffs challenge the refusal to give evidentiary weight to two internal legal memoranda. They couch the issue as a question of law: that the district court failed to consider evidence, violating a standard of review announced in Wildbur v. ARCO Chem. Co., 974 F.2d 631 (5th Cir.), clarified , 979 F.2d 1013 (5th Cir. 1992). This contention is squarely contradicted by the record. Plaintiffs’ next challenge goes to the merits of the district court’s determination that the administrator did not abuse his discretion. The district court opted to follow that path, and determined that the assistant plan administrator’s interpretation of the plan was not an abuse of discretion. That conclusion is amply supported by the record. Harrison’s analysis also finds support in the contract between John MacLachlan, a plaintiff, and Consolidated Technical Services, Inc., one of MacLachlan’s direct employers while he worked as an electronics technician for Mobil. As the district court noted: “MacLachlan entered a written contract with CTS/UTS by which he was included on CTS/UTS’s payroll, was eligible to participate in the company’s group benefits plans after 30 days of service, and could not accept a position with Mobil within 30 days of termination without the written consent of CTS/UTS . . .” It is entirely reasonable for an administrator to conclude that a person who performs services for Mobil under such terms is not a “regular” employee of the Mobil corporation. ERISA does not require Mobil to define its benefits plans in such a way as to provide coverage for all employees, irrespective of whether they are protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. To the contrary, it is well established that an employee may be a common law employee for some purposes, yet not entitled to benefits under a benefit plan. OPINION: Smith, J.

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