The Impact of Surveillance on Disability Claims

Disability insurance companies may look to more than just medical records and reports when determining whether a claimant qualifies for disability insurance benefits. Insurers have long used private investigators to perform surveillance of claimants in order to obtain additional information regarding the claimant’s restrictions and limitations. Oftentimes, the private investigators are asked to document their observations with video to provide tangible evidence of the claimant’s daily activities and abilities. Depending on the information gathered, reports from the investigators’ surveillance and the associated video evidence can lead to a denial of disability benefits. Generally, when courts review video evidence they look at whether the observations in the surveillance video are consistent with the claimant’s reported restrictions and limitations.

A common strategy for disability insurers is to schedule surveillance at a time when the claimant has a scheduled appointment with their doctor or a previously scheduled medical examination. This provides the private investigators with a known opportunity to observe the claimant outside of their home. Inevitably, this allows the surveillance team to observe the claimant driving or riding in a vehicle. In Mote v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., 502 F.3d 601 (7th Cir.2007), Aetna’s decision to deny the plaintiff’s disability benefits was upheld by the court. Aetna based their decision in part on video surveillance showing the plaintiff running errands, driving to medical appointments, and loading groceries into her car. This evidence was used to establish that the plaintiff could work in “any occupation.” However, video surveillance in Gessling v. Grp. Long Term Disability Plan for Employees of Sprint/United Mgmt. Co., 693 F. Supp. 2d 856, 864 (S.D. Ind. 2010) only showed that the claimant was capable of driving a little longer than the fifteen minutes he reported to a Hartford Life representative. The court in Gessling found that this video evidence “says nothing useful about (the claimant’s) ability to work in his own occupation.”

Similarly, the Northern District of California found that surveillance evidence depicting a plaintiff “walking, driving and doing errands … for a couple of hours … does not mean that [that p]laintiff is able to work an eight-hour a day job.” Thivierge v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 2006 WL 823751, at *11 (N.D.Cal. March 28, 2006). The Eastern District of California reached the same conclusion in a case where Hartford procured surveillance video of the plaintiff driving to the store, visiting a friend, carrying a small bag, and sitting through an interview while taking numerous breaks. Leick v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 2008 WL 1882850 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 24, 2008). The court determined that the plaintiff’s documented activity on a “good day” did not contradict that the plaintiff was unable to perform a full-time sedentary job. Id. See also Hunter v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 437 F. App’x 372, 378-79 (6th Cir. 2011) (surveillance of a plaintiff driving to her functional capacity evaluation, as well as other activities of daily living, did not indicate that Hunter can perform all the physical duties of her former occupation).

Key considerations when reviewing surveillance evidence of driving include how long the claimant is operating the vehicle and where they are driving to during the surveillance. Courts seem to understand that driving only 15 or 20 minutes does not reveal much about a person’s ability to work in a full-time job. Moreover, if the claimant is driving to a place where they are required to attend, like a doctor’s appointment or a trip to the grocery store, then courts have often found this type of activity to be reasonable unless the claimant has reported that they are unable to drive at all.

There have been occasions where a court reviews surveillance evidence of a claimant engaging in activity that is physical in nature. One such case is Holoubek v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 2006 WL 2434991 (W.D. Wis. Aug. 22, 2006). In Holoubek, Unum obtained surveillance showing the plaintiff engaging in activity including (1) driving an automobile, (2) operating a forklift at a construction site, (3) lifting various objects, (4) walking and bending forward at the waist; and (5) leaving his apartment on four continuous days. In this case, Unum was determining whether the plaintiff could return to his job as a materials manager. Unum terminated the plaintiff’s benefits and in the district court’s decision, the judge found that Unum’s four days of surveillance “is of little value because it fails to demonstrate that plaintiff could sustain such a level of activity on a continuous basis.” While relying on the case of Hawkins v. First Union Corp. Long-Term Disability Plan, 326 F.3d 914, 918 (7th Cir.2003), the Holoubek court found that the plaintiff was in a desperate situation and forced “himself to work despite an illness that everyone agree[s] [is] totally disabling.” While the court in Holoubek admitted that the surveillance video showed activity inconsistent with the plaintiff’s claimed restrictions and limitations, the court ruled that Unum’s termination was arbitrary and capricious because Unum failed to explain how plaintiff’s observed surveillance activities established that he could perform the material and substantial duties of a materials manager.

Another case examining surveillance footage showing physical activity is Cross v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 292 F. App’x 888 (11th Cir. 2008). The surveillance footage showed the plaintiff occasionally bending at the waist, squatting, carrying equipment of an unknown weight, and coaching baseball. MetLife characterized the plaintiff’s observed activity as “pitch[ing] baseballs to a player in the batting net”, although the court’s review found that the plaintiff was merely “sitting on a bucket next to a batter and tossing baseballs a few feet up in the air for the batter to hit.” MetLife also attempted to bolster its argument by pointing out what the plaintiff was not doing in the video, namely not using braces or supports, not limping, and not exhibiting signs of impairments or pain. Id. The court decided that the surveillance footage is only a “snapshot of Cross’s activities throughout the day” and “these snapshots do nothing to disprove Cross’s reports of pain.” The court noted that the plaintiff increased his dosages of pain medication during his coaching activities since these activities caused him more pain. Even considering MetLife’s surveillance video, the Eleventh Circuit held that MetLife’s determination that plaintiff is capable of performing his prior occupation is not supported by reasonable grounds.

One case involving Liberty Mutual included three occasions of surveillance video over a four year period. Minix v. Liberty Life Assur. Co., 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15309 (N.D.Ind.. July 22, 2005). In 1999, the plaintiff, who suffered from ulcerative colitis, was observed performing activity at a horse farm. The surveillance showed Minix enjoyed riding and showing horses on good days. In 1999, Liberty Life did not change its determination that Minix was totally disabled. Id. Again in 2000, the Liberty Life performed surveillance of the plaintiff and he “was observed driving his truck, moving hay, unloading his truck, and sitting in a parking lot for two hours and forty minutes.” Id. Still, Liberty Life did not change its opinion that Minix was totally disabled. Yet again in 2002, Liberty performed surveillance and observed Minix riding a “horse for approximately one hour and twenty minutes, walking around, bending at a 90 degree angle to pick up sticks, and sitting on the porch for approximately forty minutes.” Id. After the third surveillance period, Liberty terminated Minix’s disability benefits claiming that he could return to work in an occupation other than his regular occupation. The court found that the surveillance video did not prove that Minix can return to work and reasoned:

Minix’s ability to bend over and pick up sticks, however, is not determinative of whether he is able to perform any occupation. Simply put, ulcerative colitis does not affect these capabilities. Rather, it is Minix’s sudden pain and urgent need to use the bathroom which cause interruptions of his work.

In another case involving Hartford Insurance Company, the court reviewed video surveillance of the claimant, among other things, walking for about a mile on five occasions for approximately half an hour. Hanusik v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., 2008 WL 283714 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 31, 2008). Hartford terminated the plaintiff’s disability benefits based on this level of activity. The court pointed out that the activities performed by the plaintiff were not ones the Plaintiff alleged she was disabled from performing. The court in Hanusik recognized that the surveillance did not reveal that the plaintiff could perform any single or combination of activities for an eight or four hour period, or strenuously exert herself in consecutive days. The court also did not find the surveillance video reasonably reliable to determine the extent of the plaintiff’s fatigue symptoms. Further, the court did not find the surveillance video as credible factual support for Hartford’s decision to terminate benefits and therefore the court ruled that the Hartford’s determination was wrong.

If your disability claim has been denied in whole or part due to surveillance captured by the insurance company, contact the O’Ryan Law Firm toll free at (855) 778-5055.