Articles Posted in ERISA

Many Indiana employees receive group disability insurance coverage through Aetna. Headquartered in Hartford, Connecticut, Aetna is a large disability insurance company that is currently in the Fortune 100. O’Ryan Law Firm has successfully represented many clients whose disability insurance benefits have been unfairly denied or terminated by Aetna.

Short Term Disability Benefits

Aetna’s short term disability coverage pays benefits after a short elimination period (often a week long). Short term disability benefits usually last three to six months. During Aetna’s investigation of the short term disability claim, it is common for Aetna to gather medical records, gather information about the claimant’s job, require statements from treating providers about the claimant’s ability to work and expected duration of disability, and have internal medical consultants review all medical evidence. If the individual is approved for short term disability benefits through the maximum duration of the policy, then they may apply for long term disability benefits.

Long Term Disability Benefits

After an elimination period that is typically the length of the short term disability period, the claimant may apply to Aetna for long term disability benefits. When a claimant receives long term disability insurance through a private employer, their claim is usually governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).

In addition to information already gathered during the short term disability claim, Aetna will request updated medical records and statements from treating providers, may perform a vocational analysis, and may have internal medical consultants or external medical consultants review the medical evidence. It is very common for long term disability policies to require that the claimant prove disability from their own occupation for the first 24 months of long term disability benefits and then require that the claimant prove disability from any occupation after 24 months of long term disability benefits.

During the long term disability claim, it is more common for Aetna to utilize claim review tactics such as referring the claimant for an Independent Medical Examination (“IME”), contracting private investigators to perform surveillance of the claimant, contracting peer reviewing physicians to review evidence and call the claimant’s doctors, and perform a Transferable Skills Analysis to see if the claimant can return to work in a different job. If a claimant is approved for long term disability benefits, it is likely that Aetna will urge the claimant to apply for Social Security disability benefits. Aetna may even refer the claimant to one of its vendors to represent them in their Social Security disability claim.
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The Prudential Friendly Society was founded by insurance agent John Fairfield Dryden in a basement office in downtown Newark, N.J., in 1875. It was the first company in the U.S. to make life insurance available to the working class. In business for 137 years, it boast 48,000 employees worldwide.

At the O’Ryan Law Firm, we receive numerous calls a year from individuals who have become disabled, have disability coverage through Prudential, their doctor has reported to Prudential that they cannot work and Prudential denies the claim. One of Prudential’s favorite reasons for denying claims is what they call a lack of “objective medical evidence.” Many conditions, such as fibromyalgia or migraine headaches, result in symptoms, such as pain and fatigue, which are hard to prove objectively. There are no lab tests or diagnostic testing that are able to establish the severity of chronic pain or fatigue. Yet Prudential in these types of claims will insist on objective medical evidence to prove the disability thus making it nearly impossible to get the claim approved.

The courts have made clear in numerous cases that an insurer’s refusal to honor a claim for lack of scientific data such as lab tests and x-rays is an abuse of discretion where no such data exists in medicine for the conditions at issue and where licensed physicians have provided professional opinions that the conditions are genuine and credibly disabling the claimant. See Holmstrom v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 615 F.3d 758, 769-772 (7th Cir. 2010); Leger v. Tribune Company Long Term Disability Benefit Plan, 557, F.3d 823, 834-835 (7th Cir. 2009); Hawkins v. First Union Corporation Long-Term Disability Plan, 326 F.3d 914, 919 (7th Cir. 2003).

In Holmstrom, the claimant suffered from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (“CPRS”), a condition recognized by the medical community but for which there is no specific diagnostic test. 615 F.3d 758, 768. In that case, the plan acknowledged “Holmstrom’s claims of intractable pain, significant physical limitations, and cognitive deficiency as identified by [claimant and her treating physician],” but found “that the lack of objective findings to support ongoing total disability prevented [the plan] from determining whether [claimant’s] disability was genuine.” Id. at 764. In finding the Holmstrom plan’s denial arbitrary and capricious, the court stated that the plan “gave undue weight to the absence of objective measurements for [claimant’s] impairments,” reasoning that:

Subjectively painful conditions like CPRS and fibromyalgia pose difficult problems for private disability insurance plan administrators and the Social Security Administration, who understandably seek to make decisions based on the most objective evidence available. But we have rejected as arbitrary an administrator’s requirement that a claimant prove her condition with objective data where no definitive objective tests exist for the condition or its severity.
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Most long term disability benefit plans or policies require claimants to apply for Social Security Disability benefits in addition to applying for long term disability benefits. The reason being that the insurance is able to offset any SSDI award against any monthly long term disability amount that is owed to the claimant under the policy. The SSDI monthly benefit is a dollar-for-dollar offset against what your insurance company pays you in terms of a monthly long term disability benefit payment. For example, if you are receiving $2,000 a month in long term disability and you are subsequently awarded an SSDI benefit of $1,000 then your long term disability benefit payment is reduced to $1,000 according to the terms of the disability policy. Because this offset is so valuable to the insurance companies, they will be persistent in their demands that you pursue your claim for SSDI benefits.

Unfortunately, we see many individuals who are receiving long term disability benefits, are then awarded SSDI and subsequently their insurance company terminates the long term disability benefit claim. This happens despite the fact that the insurer may have hired a company, such as Allsup or the Advocator Group, to represent the claimant in the SSDI process. It seems unfair that the insurance company can represent to the Social Security Administration that you are totally disabled but then terminate your benefits claiming you are no longer disabled for purposes of the disability policy.

When we have clients in this position, we first of all point out to the insurance company that the definition of disabled for purposes of SSDI is more stringent than the definition of Disabled under the terms of the policy. The SSA defines “disability” as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A).

Oftentimes, the insurance company will ignore the SSDI findings of total disability or fail to analyze or distinguish the SSA’s fully favorable decision in any of its denial letters. The courts have held that it is improper for the insurer to ignore the SSA’s decision of total disability given the fact that it is important proof that the claimant meets the definition of Disabled under the policy. “This definition is a stringent one, and an administrator’s failure to address a claimant’s SSA disability finding is thus especially questionable when the ERISA plan’s disability definition is less exacting.” Holzmeyer v. Walgreen Income Protection Plan for Pharmacists and Registered Nurses, 2014 WL 4388625, *18 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 4, 2014).
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Sedgwick Claims Management Services (“CMS”) is a third party claims administrator hired by insurance companies and employee benefit plans to manage disability claims. If your employee benefit plan uses Sedgwick CMS as a claims administrator, then Sedgwick CMS is responsible for deciding whether your disability claim is approved or denied. As well as processing and adjudicating disability claims, Sedgwick holds itself out as providing the following services:

The company specializes in workers’ compensation; disability, FMLA, and other employee absence; managed care; general, automobile, and professional liability; warranty and credit card claims services; fraud and investigation; structured settlements; and Medicare compliance solutions (website last visited August 16, 2014).

Sedgwick CMS is headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee and is one of the largest third party administrators in the nation. Many Indiana employers hire Sedgwick CMS to serve as their claims administrator for employee benefits. Employee benefit plans that currently use or previously used Sedgwick CMS include Eli Lilly & Company, AT&T, Comcast, Walgreens, Franciscan Alliance Inc., SPX Corporation, Ascension Health, Hewlett-Packard, PepsiCo Inc., International Paper, UnitedHealth Group, and many others. If employees of these companies apply for short term or long term disability benefits, Sedgwick CMS is responsible for processing the claims and deciding whether benefits should be paid. As a third party administrator, Sedgwick CMS does not actually pay the disability benefits. Rather, the employee benefit plan or insurance company pays disability benefits if Sedgwick CMS approves the claim. Often, the employee benefit plan has little involvement in the disability claims process, if any.

Like disability insurance companies, Sedgwick initially reviews a disability claim by obtaining medical records, requiring the claimant’s treating physician to complete questionnaires, and having in-house staff (nurses, doctors, vocational analysts, claims analysts) review the claimant’s file. If the claim is denied and the claimant appeals, then Sedgwick’s review of the appeal will likely include the use of contracted record reviewing physicians. If the claim is approved, Sedgwick may call or write to the claimant frequently in efforts to obtain more information. Sedgwick may also require the claimant to undergo an “Independent Medical Examination” or “Functional Capacity Evaluation.”
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The Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (“ERISA”) mandates that insurance companies and claims administrators provide claimants with the specific reasons for the denial or termination of employee benefits and the reasons for the denial must be in writing. See Militello v. Cent. States, Se. and Sw. Areas Pension Fund, 360 F.3d 681, 688 (7th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 869 (2004). The Department of Labor has promulgated regulations under ERISA which require certain information to be contained in a denial or termination of benefits letter. Specifically, 29 C.F.R. §2560.503(g) states:

Manner and content of notification of benefit determination.

(1)….The notification shall set forth, in a manner of calculated to be understood by the claimant –

(I) Reference to the specific plan provisions on which the determination is based;

(II) A description of any additional material or information necessary for the claimant to perfect the claim and an explanation of why such material or information is necessary;

These requirements ensure that when a claimant appeals a denial to the plan administrator, he or she will be able to address the determinative issues and have a fair chance to present his case. Halpin v. W.W. Granger, 962 F.2d 685 (7th Cir. 1992). Describing the additional information needed, as required by this section, enables a claimant to gain a better understanding of the inadequacy of his claim and to gain a meaningful review by knowing with what to supplement the record. Wolfe v. J.C. Penney Co., 710 F.2d 388 (7th Cir. 1983).
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In Kenseth v. Dean Health Plan, Inc., 722 F.3d 869 (7th Cir. 2013), Ms. Kenseth had gastric band surgery in 1987. Eighteen years later, Kenseth’s physician recommended a second operation to address the severe acid reflux and other serious health problems that had arisen since the gastric band surgery. The medical policy specifically excluded treatment for morbid obesity; however, when Ms. Kenseth called to get approval for the second surgery, a customer service representative told Kenseth over the phone that the medical plan would cover the procedure subject to a $300 co-payment. Subsequently, all of the medical claims related to the second surgery, totaling approximately $78,0000, were denied by the health plan as being related to morbid obesity.

The Court was troubled by the health plan leading Kenseth to believe that the second procedure would be covered when Kenseth called for certification and then denying the claims after the surgery. The Court explained that fiduciaries have a duty to disclose material information to plan participants, which includes a duty not to mislead and an affirmative duty to communicate material facts affecting the interests of plan participants. Although negligence of the individual in supplying advice is not actionable as a breach of fiduciary duty, a fiduciary may be liable for failing to take reasonable steps in furtherance of an insured’s right to accurate and complete information.

The court in Kenseth reversed the district court opinion noting that where the defendant, by encouraging plan participants to call for coverage information before undergoing procedures, by telling plaintiff that defendant would pay for the procedure, and by not alerting plaintiff that she could not rely on the advice she received, lulled plaintiff into believing that defendant would cover the costs of the procedure…and where plaintiff did not obtain alternate coverage because she believe she was covered, plaintiff could seek make-whole money damages as an equitable remedy under § 502(a)(3) if the administrator’s breach of fiduciary duty caused her damages. The Court seemed most bothered by the fact that there was no warning in the medical plan to plan participants that they could not rely upon the advice given to them by the customer service representatives nor was there any clear explanation given as to how a plan participant could obtain a definitive answer on whether a particular procedure would be covered. The Seventh Circuit ended up remanding the case to the district court to determine whether there was a breach of fiduciary duty, whether the breach was the cause of any harm to plaintiff, and what form of equitable relief was appropriate in light of circumstances of case.
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Functional Capacity Evaluations (“FCEs”) are a type of test used to determine the severity of someone’s physical impairments. FCEs are common in disability insurance claims, workers compensation claims, and other contexts where the level of a claimant’s injury or sickness needs to be evaluated.

FCEs are usually administered by a physical therapist or physician who specializes in occupational medicine. Common measurements during an FCE include how much the claimant can lift, how much they can push and pull, how long they can walk and stand, how long they can sit, the ability to reach in all directions, the ability to grasp and manipulate with each hand, the degree to which a claimant can move all joints, the ability to squat and bend, and the ability to stoop and balance. FCEs can vary in duration: some FCEs are very brief – only a couple of hours – and some FCEs are actually performed over the course of two days.

In long term disability insurance cases, many insurance policies allow the insurance company to request that a claimant undergo an FCE at a facility of their choosing. A claimant’s refusal to undergo such testing may give the insurance company grounds to deny disability benefits. Therefore, it is likely that the claimant will have to comply with the insurance company’s request for an FCE. However, a claimant may want to consider the following tips before attending an FCE:
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Exclusionary clauses for experimental or investigational treatment may either be included under the “medically necessary” provision of a medical policy or as a separate exclusionary clause in the plan. Either way, exclusions for experimental treatments provide yet another obstacle in getting certain medical claims paid under ERISA plans. In cases where benefits are denied as experimental or investigational in nature, courts are often called upon to interpret whether the language governing the experimental exclusion is ambiguous or whether the insurance company’s denial under the provision was arbitrary and capricious.

The standard for what is “experimental” must be defined in the plan and cannot be “a floating standard which could rise or fall in any fact situation.” Bucci v. Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Connecticut, Inc., 764 F.Supp. 728, 733 (D.Conn. 1991). Courts may also look to the body of the medical community’s acceptance in determining whether a treatment is experimental. An insurer’s failure to consider whether a relevant segment of the medical community accepts a procedure as being within a range of appropriate medical treatment may suggest an arbitrary and capricious review of a claim. The Bucci court analogized this review to the malpractice setting, stating, “If the contemporary standards of the medical community would deem the treatment applied or used in the circumstances of the particular case, as consistent with the exercise of medical judgment, in the view of a reasonable number of practitioners qualified to treat the malady in question, then the treatment must be found to be accepted medical practice. If such were the case, then a finding that the treatment was not so accepted could only be arbitrary and capricious.” Because the standard for experimental treatment relied upon by the plan administrator was not clearly defined in the plan, the court determined that the denial was arbitrary and capricious.
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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).

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Liberty Mutual employs over 50,000 people in more than 900 locations throughout the world. As of December 31, 2012, Liberty Mutual Insurance had $120.1 billion in consolidated assets, $101.5 billion in consolidated liabilities, and $36.9 billion in annual consolidated revenue. The company, founded in 1912, offers a wide range of insurance products and services, including personal automobile, homeowners, workers compensation, commercial multiple peril, commercial automobile, general liability, global specialty, group disability, fire and surety.

Liberty Mutual Group Benefits department provides mid-sized and large businesses with short- and long-term disability insurance products and group life insurance. Many Indiana employers, such as Dow Chemical and Subaru, have purchased short term disability group coverage and long term disability group coverage through Liberty Mutual. Although, oftentimes Liberty Mutual is only the claims administrator for the short term disability coverage and does not insure the short term disability benefits. By issuing the short term and long term disability policies, Liberty Mutual agrees to pay income replacement benefits to employees who become disabled due to injury or illness.

On their website Liberty Mutual notes that as far as Long-Term Disability: