Articles Posted in ERISA

Dan T. is 60 years old and was a cable splicing technician with a telecommunications company, where he worked for approximately 29 years until late 2015, when he was forced to stop working due to the debilitating effects of bilateral knee osteoarthritis and cervical and lumbar spondylosis. Since that time, he has also undergone total replacements of both knees and developed severe, debilitating chronic cervicogenic/occipital headaches that occur on a daily basis; moderate to severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; and increasingly severe lower back and leg pain that persists despite a lumbar spinal fusion surgery in early 2018.

When Dan was forced to stop working, he applied for long term disability (LTD) benefits through his employer’s disability plan, which was insured by Prudential. Under the terms of the Prudential policy, Dan was entitled to receive LTD benefits for up to 24 months if he was unable to perform the material duties of his own occupation. Because Dan’s medical conditions prevented him from working in his own occupation as a cable splicing technician, Prudential awarded him LTD benefits, which it paid until May of 2018.

However, the terms of the Prudential LTD policy dictate that after 24 months of receiving LTD benefits, Dan was only entitled to continue receiving benefits if he could prove that he was disabled from performing any gainful occupation for which he was “reasonably fitted by education, training or experience.” As a result, Prudential terminated Dan’s benefits after 24 months, based on a vocational review that concluded that he was able to perform certain sedentary work for which he was qualified by his education and experience.

O’Ryan Law firm has extensive experience representing clients in appeals and litigation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which governs most claims for benefits under employer-sponsored insurance plans. Earlier this year, the US Department of Labor amended its regulations under ERISA, providing claimants with some additional rights during the process of appealing denials of benefits under plans governed by ERISA.

One important additional right granted under the new ERISA regulation is the opportunity to review and respond to any additional evidence considered by an insurance company during an appeal of a benefits claim denial. This means that if a claimant appeals a denial or termination of benefits and the insurance company sends the file to a reviewing physician, the claimant has a right to read and respond to the report of that reviewing physician before the insurance company can make its final decision on the appeal. O’Ryan Law firm recently took advantage of this new protection to obtain short term disability (STD) benefits for a client who had previously had her STD benefits terminated.

Kim M was a Repair Service Attendant at a large telecom company and was forced to stop working in early 2017[1] as a result of failed back syndrome, multilevel degenerative disc disease, lumbar facet arthritis, and spondylopathy. After she was unable to return to work, she was awarded STD benefits under her employer’s disability plan, which was administered by Sedgwick. However, Sedgwick terminated Kim’s STD benefits several months later, claiming there was no longer sufficient medical evidence to support her claim. In the letter explaining its termination of Kim’s benefits, Sedgwick relied on the opinions of two reviewing physicians who asserted that Kim was not disabled.

Earlier this month, Judge Richard Posner abruptly announced his retirement from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit after more than 35 years on the bench, effective the following day. Judge Posner, a prolific writer and author of more than 3300 judicial opinions and nearly 40 books, was one of the most prominent appellate judges in the United States and the most-cited legal scholar of the 20th century, according to a survey by the Journal of Legal Studies. He carefully drafted his legal opinions to be easy to read and understand, and his signature concise, frank, and often humorous writing style helped to modernize the discipline of legal writing, presenting a stark contrast from the overly formal, long-winded “legalese” that had long dominated the legal field.

Just over three months prior to his retirement, Judge Posner authored an opinionKennedy v. The Lilly Extended Disability Plan, 856 F.3d 1136 (7th Cir. 2017), awarding substantial long term disability benefits to Cathleen Kennedy, an O’Ryan Law Firm client who had been forced to stop working in her position as an HR executive for Eli Lilly & Company as a result of severe fibromyalgia, a nightmarish condition characterized by chronic widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue that often presents with psychosomatic symptoms such as sleep and memory issues, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, because many of the primary symptoms of fibromyalgia – especially pain and fatigue – are difficult to objectively measure, the condition has historically been misunderstood and often goes undiagnosed due to the lack of a reliable means of testing for it. As a result, those who suffer from fibromyalgia also frequently must deal with the frustration caused by doubts about the validity of their condition and symptoms by friends, family, and sometimes even their healthcare providers.

Fortunately, recent scientific advances in the understanding of fibromyalgia have led to increasing acceptance of the validity of the condition and its profound impact on the lives of those who suffer from it. Judge Posner recognized this in his opinion, noting that Lilly itself markets a treatment for fibromyalgia and has been advised by one of its own physicians that fibromyalgia “is not only very common but is typically also very disabling” and that many victims of fibromyalgia “end up needing to stop working because of this condition.” Nonetheless, Lilly had terminated Ms. Kennedy’s long term disability benefits after she had been disabled for nearly four years due to fibromyalgia, despite the fact that her primary treating physicians had declared her to be permanently disabled, largely because there was no objective laboratory data proving the validity of her symptoms. Lilly claimed that although Ms. Kennedy was unable to work full time in her previous executive-level position, she could still work part time in one of “various non-executive positions” in her field.

O’Ryan Law Firm, on behalf of Plaintiff, Denise D., recently filed a lawsuit against The Prudential Insurance Company of America (“Prudential”).   Plaintiff was employed by Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which made her eligible for the Advance/Newhouse Partnership Short Term and Long Term Disability Plans, which were administered and insured by Prudential.

Facts of the Case Against Prudential

Plaintiff was employed by Advance/Newhouse Partnership from 2012 until she became disabled in February 2016 and was unable to work due to lupus, fibromyalgia, migraines, spondylosis and radiculopathy. Plaintiff’s treating physicians provided objective medical proof that the Plaintiff was unable to continue working due to these serious illnesses.  Her physicians also confirmed that she was unable to perform the material duties of her job thus meeting the definition of “Disabled” under the Prudential policy.

O’Ryan Law Firm recently settled a lawsuit against American United Life Insurance Company (“AUL”) on behalf of a client whose long term disability benefits were prematurely terminated by AUL.   AUL is headquartered in Indianapolis and has their main office in downtown Indianapolis in the AUL building.  The client, Candace, is actually a New Jersey resident so naturally it would make sense to file the claim in New Jersey.  However, the O’Ryan Law Firm was able to represent Candace in Indiana because of the fact that AUL is incorporated under Indiana law.  As a result, AUL may be sued in Indiana and the lawsuit was therefore filed in the federal district court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Case Against AUL

Candace was employed as an accounts manager for an insurance brokerage company from 2008 until she became disabled in December 2012.  She became unable to work due to lumbar radiculopathy and moderately severe cervical stenosis, both of which resulted in chronic pain and fecal incontinence. Her treating physicians provided objective medical proof that the she was unable to continue working due to these medical impairments.

O’Ryan Law Firm, on behalf of Plaintiff Shane C., recently filed a federal lawsuit against The Prudential Insurance Company of America (“Prudential”). The Plaintiff was employed as Senior Vice President Regional Manager with Custard Insurance Adjusters, Inc. which made him eligible for disability benefits under the Custard Insurance Adjusters, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan (the “Plan”).  As a Regional Manager, Shane was required to travel to 9 different offices throughout the Midwest to oversee and supervise these 9 offices.

In Shane C. v. The Prudential Insurance Company of America and Custard Insurance Adjuster, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan, the Plaintiff filed a lawsuit under ERISA to gain the long-term disability benefits he was entitled to under the terms of the Prudential policy.

Facts of the Case Against Prudential

At the O’Ryan Law Firm, we represent numerous clients who have become disabled and their disability claim was denied by their insurance company. We then represent the clients in the appeal process to appeal the denial of their disability benefits.  Lately, many of the insurance companies have be issuing late determination decisions on the appeals that we submit to those companies.  By law, an insurance company is required to issue a decision within 45 days of the date of receipt of the appeal unless an extension is warranted due to “special circumstances” but even then, a decision on the appeal must be rendered within 90 days at the latest.

The Supreme Court in Firestone Tire & Rubber v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989) held that de novo adjudication of employee benefit claims is the norm. Because the de novo standard of review is the default standard in an ERISA employee benefits case, the plan administrator or insurance company bears the burden of showing that the more deferential standard should apply. Fay v. Oxford Health Plan, 287 F.3d 96, 104 (2d Cir.2002)Marguez-Massas v. Squibb Mfg., Inc., 344 F.Supp.2d 315, 320 (D.P.R. 2004); McDonald v. Timberland Co. Group LTD Coverage Program, 2002 WL 122382, at *3 (D.N.H. Jan.23, 2002). Accordingly, once in litigation, a disability insurance company bears the burden of proving that their decision is entitled to deferential review by the Court.

The regulations governing ERISA disability claims require insurance companies to issue a decision on a claimant’s appeal within 45 days of the date that the insurance company received the appeal unless “special circumstances” warrant an extension of time for an additional 45 days; however, in “no event” shall the extension of time exceed 45 days. 29 C.F.R. §2560.503-1(i)(1), (i)(3), (i)(4).

O’Ryan Law Firm, on behalf of Plaintiff Laura McKenzie, recently filed a federal lawsuit against Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”), which is a subsidiary of Cigna Corporation. The Plaintiff was employed as a Registered Nurse with Allied Physicians, which made her eligible for disability benefits under the Allied Physicians, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan (the “Plan”).

In Laura McKenzie v. Life Insurance Company of North America and Allied Physicians, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan, the Plaintiff filed a lawsuit to gain the long-term disability benefits she was entitled to under the terms of the Plan.

Facts of the Case Against LINA

Plaintiff was employed by Allied Physicians, Inc. as a Registered Nurse until she became disabled in 2009 due to the disabling effects of cervical and lumbar spondylosis and other serious medical conditions. Plaintiff filed an application for long term disability benefits and was paid disability benefits by the Allied Physicians, Inc. Long Term Disability Plan from October 2014 to October 2016. LINA issued the disability policy that provided disability coverage to the employees of Allied Physicians.
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O’Ryan Law Firm, on behalf of Plaintiff, Jilian F., recently filed a federal lawsuit against Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) in an attempt to reinstate the Plaintiff’s disability benefits claim. The Plaintiff was employed as a Marketing Communication Specialist with Landis + Gyr, which made her eligible for disability benefits under the Cellnet + Hunt Employee’s Welfare Benefit Plan (the “Plan”). In Jilian F. v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Cellnet + Hunt Employee’s Welfare Benefit Plan, the Plaintiff filed a lawsuit to gain the long-term disability benefits she was entitled to under the terms of the MetLife policy.

Facts of the Case Against MetLife

Plaintiff was employed by Landis + Gyr until she became disabled in 2011 due to the disabling effects of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, cervical degenerative disc disease and cervical radiculopathy, severe neck pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and paresthesia.

Plaintiff filed an application for long term disability benefits and was paid disability benefits by MetLife from August 2013 to September 17, 2014.

MetLife Terminates Long-Term Disability Benefits

On September 17, 2014, MetLife wrongfully terminated the Plaintiff’s long-term disability benefits. Plaintiff, represented by the O’Ryan Law Firm, then filed an administrative appeal with MetLife challenging the termination of her disability benefits. With this appeal, the Plaintiff included significant medical evidence to prove that she continued to meet the definition of Disabled under the MetLife policy. However, MetLife refused to overturn their decision to terminate the benefits. As a result, the Plaintiff was forced to file a lawsuit under ERISA in federal court against MetLife to obtain the benefits due her under the MetLife policy.
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Many of our clients suffer from depression as a result of their disabling physical conditions or they may have other disabling psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder. It is important to be aware that most disability policies cut-off disability benefits after 24 months of benefits if the disabling medical condition is considered a psychiatric condition otherwise known as a “mental impairment.” Each policy contains different language on this issue. For instance, the Prudential policy provides

What Disabilities Have a Limited Pay period Under Your Plan?

Disabilities which, as determined by Prudential, are due in whole or part to Mental illness also have a limited pay period during your lifetime.

The limited pay period for self-reported symptoms and mental illness combined is 24 months during your lifetime.

Mental illness means a psychiatric or psychological condition regardless of cause. Mental illness includes but is not limited to schizophrenia, depression, manic depressive or bipolar illness, anxiety, somatization, substance related disorders and/or adjustment disorders or other conditions. These conditions are usually treated by a mental health provider…using psychotherapy or psychotropic drugs.

In the case of Deal v. Prudential:

 Deal saw a host of medical professionals for both physical and psychological conditions out of a knee injury and associated pain.
 Diagnosed with Moderate Major Depressive Order  Two psychologists reports indicating Deal’s disability caused, at least in part, by mental disorders  The Court concluded–“Prudential has not shown that the mental disorder benefit limitation applies.”
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