Articles Tagged with ERISA

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

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 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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When a person with a disability is completing his or her application for long term disability benefits, they may not realize the terms they must meet in order to receive disability benefits. While long term disability policies can vary greatly, there are some common provisions found within the policies. The below provisions are commonly found in long term disability policies, but please carefully review your policy to learn the specific requirements of receiving long term disability benefits.

Definition of Disability Every long term disability policy will include a definition of Disability or Total Disability. It is common for this definition to be broken into two parts. Often, the first part defines disability as an injury or illness that prevents the claimant from performing the duties of his or her own occupation. The second part pertains to the disability after a set time period, such as 24 months. This second part defines disability as the same injury or illness that prevents the claimant from performing the duties of any occupation.

It is also worth noting that there can be important terms within the definition of disability. For example, some definitions define “own occupation” as one that is performed in the national economy and can be found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Another example is the definition of “injury” or “illness”, which may exclude conditions such as alcoholism or injuries from self-harm. The term “any occupation” may be defined as an occupation that the claimant’s experience and training reasonably allows. Because of the important terms within the definition of disability, you will want to carefully review the policy’s definition of each term, so that you fully understand the requirements within the definition of disability.

Elimination Period and Other Requirements Many definitions of disability include more requirements than those mentioned above. One of the most common additional requirements is that a claimant meets an elimination period. An elimination period is usually defined as a set amount of time (such as 180 days) that a claimant must prove to be disabled before becoming eligible for long term disability benefits. An elimination period is important in two ways: 1) a claimant must provide medical documentation showing that they were disabled during this time frame and 2) a claimant will not receive long term disability benefits until the elimination period is exhausted.

Because so many variations in the requirements of disability exist, it is crucial to examine the entire long term disability policy carefully. One common requirement in disability policies is that the insured’s disability prevents him from earning 60% or more of his previous earnings (this provision may also allow a person to work part-time, but still qualify for long term disability benefits). An insurance policy could require that a claimant maintains regular treatment with his physician. Other policies may even require that a disability be supported by objective evidence, such as blood tests, x-rays, or MRIs. Some policies may require that a person be approved for disability benefits by the Social Security Administration.
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The Northern District of Illinois recently ruled in favor of the Plaintiff’s summary judgment motion in a long term disability lawsuit. In Krupp v. Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston, the court found that Liberty Life’s termination of Ms. Krupp’s long term disability benefits was arbitrary and capricious. Krupp’s long term disability benefits were provided through her employee benefit plan and accordingly, the case was examined under the rules and regulations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). To read the full opinion, see the link here.
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Fibromyalgia is a condition that may prevent someone from working. In these situations, the person may be able to apply for short term disability benefits, long term disability benefits, or Social Security disability benefits. When it comes to filing a claim for disability benefits, it can be challenging for claimants to prove that their fibromyalgia is disabling. These challenges appear in claims to both insurance companies and the Social Security Administration (“SSA”).

Those who suffer from fibromyalgia experience chronic, widespread pain and fatigue, but the objective test results may not show this. Unlike conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis or degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia does not appear in MRIs or x-rays. Because fibromyalgia is a disorder which does not appear in medical imaging or blood tests, it can be a difficult condition to diagnose. If a fibromyalgia patient is applying for disability benefits, they should follow these steps to document proof of their disability:
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The process of applying for disability insurance benefits is not easy. After becoming injured or sick, the claimant must then complete stacks of paperwork in order to file a claim for disability insurance benefits. Among the forms that the claimant must complete is an authorization form that allows the insurer to contact medical sources. But what some claimants do not realize is that the insurer may look beyond the claimant’s medical records when making a determination of disability.

The insurance company may utilize a private investigator to surveillance the claimant. This usually means that an investigator will observe the claimant’s house or apartment for hours at a time and wait for the claimant to leave the house. The investigator will then follow the claimant to wherever it is they travel and document the activity. Insurance companies may take this evidence and present it to a peer reviewing physician for comment. If a claimant is observed walking in a store for 45 minutes, a doctor can review the surveillance video and opine that the claimant is capable of returning to work.
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In disability insurance cases that are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), courts have found that a disability insurance company’s failure to consider an important aspect of a claimant’s disability is evidence of an arbitrary and capricious decision.

For example, the court in Powers v. Nat’l Rural Letter Carriers’ Ass’n Long-Term Disability Income Plan found that it was arbitrary and capricious for the disability plan to ignore completely the Plaintiff’s contemporaneous statement that she had one or two bad days a week where she could not leave the couch. 2009 WL 1259378 (S.D. Ind. May 5, 2009).

In Powers, the Plaintiff’s treating physician recommended that a functional capacity evaluation be performed to assess the Plaintiff’s physical restrictions and limitations. However, the disability plan opted to make a denial without a functional capacity evaluation and instead relied upon surveillance video of the Plaintiff.

Another factor considered in determining the insurer’s arbitrary and capricious decisionmaking was the disability plan’s failure to show that there were jobs in Indiana that the Plaintiff could perform. Although the disability plan found jobs that are “prevalent in the national economy”, the disability plan did not provide actual numbers and locations of jobs that the Plaintiff could perform. Id. at 5. Moreover, the jobs provided by the disability plan did not meet the accommodations that the Plaintiff requires as a result of her physical restrictions and limitations. Specifically, the disability plan did not find any jobs that would allow the Plaintiff to miss more than one day of work per month because of her health condition. As a result, the court in Powers determined that the Plaintiff met the requirements to continue to receive long term disability benefits and the disability plan was arbitrary and capricious in terminating her benefits.
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