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Top Cases for Lien Resolution

Teresa Kenyon, Esq. and Kevin James

Effectively minimizing or eliminating the reimbursement of any claimed medical lien is a critical part of ensuring just compensation for the injured. Personal injury lawyers encounter numerous obstacles in the process of resolving liens. While the negotiation and resolution of liens can be done independently by the attorney and their teams, collaborating with a seasoned lien resolution expert can alleviate these challenges. The obstacles a personal injury lawyer may face encompass time-consuming tasks such as identification of lienholders, navigating the intricate web of jurisdiction-specific lien laws, and negotiating for the most substantial reduction possible. Confronting these challenges may prevent attorneys from focusing on what the firm does best and distract from the primary task of representing more clients successfully.

If you decide not to outsource lien resolution functions to experts, the following noteworthy precedents will serve as valuable guides in your efforts to minimize liens. The applicability of these cases for lien resolution depends on the unique context of the case and differences from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Nevertheless, these cases have played a substantial role in shaping lien resolution principles in their respective areas.

Medicaid – Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services v. Ahlborn (2006):

Ahlborn was a landmark case that has played a pivotal role in establishing the principle of “proportional recovery” in Medicaid lien reduction. The Supreme Court ruled that Medicaid can only recover from the portion of settlement dollars that can reasonably attributed to medical expenses. The mandate from the Court is that an allocation must be made between medical expenses and all other types of damages.  The parties agreed to a pro-rata reduction prior to the Court’s ultimate holding in Ahlborn, but it is most important to note that the Court expressly refused to mandate a method of allocation, only that an allocation must be done.

Medicaid – Gallardo v Marstiller (2022)

The Court provided additional clarification regarding the previous limitations for reimbursement to Medicaid as espoused by Ahlborn by holding that the Medicaid Act permits states to seek reimbursement from settlement payments allocated for future medical care, not just past medical care.

ERISA – Cigna v Amara (2011)

This case focused on whether the employees could enforce the terms of the ERISA Plan based on misleading SPDs, even if the terms of the Plan and the SPDs did not align. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employees, holding that the terms of an ERISA plan could be enforced based on equitable remedies when there was a discrepancy between the plan documents and the SPDs. The Court clarified that, under ERISA, the terms of the plan documents govern, but if there is a conflict or discrepancy between the plan documents and the SPDs, the actual plan terms controlled.

ERISA – US Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen (2013):

The US Supreme Court held that while ERISA plans are contractual, and their terms are generally enforceable, equitable doctrines can sometimes be invoked to limit the extent of reimbursement sought by a plan. The Court ruled that when a plan seeks reimbursement from a participant’s recovery, the common-fund doctrine and unjust enrichment principles can be considered to ensure fairness. However, the Court also emphasized that the specific terms of the Plan and the intent of the parties, as expressed in the plan documents, should guide the analysis. The Court remanded the case to the lower courts to apply these equitable principles in determining the extent of reimbursement owed to the ERISA plan, taking into account the circumstances of the case. While used by subrogation vendors as their support for why they don’t have to reduce their self-funded ERISA lien, it is also strongly support for the injured party when the policy language is not clear and concise.

ERISA – Montanile v. Board of Trustees of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan (2016):

Montanile focused on whether the ERISA health benefit plan could enforce its subrogation rights to recover funds from Montanile’s settlement after he had spent the settlement proceeds on nontraceable items.  The Montanile decision clarified the limitations on health benefit plans’ ability to enforce subrogation rights in certain circumstances. It emphasized the importance of timely action by plans to assert their rights and highlighted the challenges plans may face when seeking recovery from participants who have already spent settlement funds on general expenses.

Hospital/Provider – Howell v. Hamilton Meats & Provisions, Inc. (Cal 2011):

California Supreme Court case that addressed the issue of medical cost recovery in personal injury lawsuits. In this case, the court held that a plaintiff in a personal injury case could only recover the reasonable value of medical services actually provided, as opposed to the higher billed amount. The decision clarified that the “collateral source rule” did not allow plaintiffs to recover medical expenses greater than the amount actually paid for the services, typically negotiated down by health insurers. This ruling had implications for the calculation of damages in personal injury cases, limiting the amount plaintiffs could recover for medical expenses.

Medicare – Bradley v Sebelius (11th Cir 2010)

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a significant blow to Medicare’s reimbursement practices under the Medicare Secondary Payer Act. The ruling, stemming from a case challenging Medicare’s ability to recover from the portion of the settlement dollars intended to compensate the heirs for their damages under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act’.  This holding establishes that the Medicare Secondary Payer Act does not preempt the Florida Wrongful Death Act and that Medicare was limited to the funds allocated to the survivorship claim.

Medicare Advantage – In re Avandia (3rd Cir 2012):

The first court to conclude that a Medicare Advantage Plans rights under the Secondary Payer Act are identical to those under traditional Medicare. Unfortunately, some subrogation vendors for Medicare Advantage plans have twisted this and subsequent cases to mean that they have the same right to make a recovery but then do not believe it means that they have the same liabilities or requirements for reduction or compromise as traditional Medicare.


In conclusion, effectively managing and minimizing medical liens in personal injury cases is a multifaceted and evolving challenge. The landscape of lien resolution is continuously shaped and redefined by significant legal precedents, such as Ahlborn, Gallardo, Amara, McCutchen, Montanile, Howell, Bradley, and the Avandia case. These rulings collectively underscore the necessity for personal injury attorneys to be acutely aware of the nuanced and jurisdiction-specific legal frameworks governing medical liens.

For attorneys, these cases serve as essential guides in navigating the complex terrain of medical lien resolution. They offer strategic insights into negotiating lien reductions, understanding the scope of lienholders’ rights, and leveraging equitable doctrines to contest excessive claims. More importantly, these rulings underscore the importance of precise and informed decision-making in the resolution process.

The evolving legal landscape, characterized by these landmark cases, reinforces the value of collaboration with experienced lien resolution professionals. While personal injury attorneys possess the legal acumen to represent their clients effectively, partnering with lien resolution experts can provide the specialized knowledge and strategic insight necessary to navigate this complex area efficiently. Such collaboration not only maximizes the potential for reducing liens but also allows attorneys to focus on their core competency—advocating for their clients—thereby enhancing the overall effectiveness and success of their legal practice.

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