Sometimes our clients who are physicians diagnose and self-treat their conditions and ask us whether they can establish their disability claim based on their own assessment.  It stands to reason that an insurance company asked to pay benefits will not rely solely on the word of the claimant. In fact, most policies indicate not only that the claimant has to be under “appropriate care” for their condition, but they cannot be treated by a family member.  Weisman v. The Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., Civil Action No. 7:22-cv-00595, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2807  (W.D. Va. Jan. 5, 2024).is interesting because the court held that Dr. Weisman, neuro-ophthalmologist and ophthalmic surgeon who experienced tremors and self treated for years was eligible for disability benefits even though he had not seen a doctor just before stopping work in Dec 2021.   The court concluded that whether or not Dr. Weisman met the policy requirement that he be under the regular care of a doctor during his disability was not relevant because the court agreed with Dr. Weisman that he had reached his maximum point of recovery and was  disabled before the policy ended.   The court relied on the opinion of a specialist, who examined Dr. Weisman after the fact and stated that he had received the appropriate care for his disability.

Finally, the court rejected Guardian’s contention that there was inadequate evidence that Dr. Weisman was disabled before he quit his job because he was self-evaluated (and treated) up to that point and only went to the specialist after he stopped working. This ERISA claim turned on whether he was covered under the policy even though he sold his business as of the date of his disability. .

We at Bonny G. Rafel LLC, provide legal counsel to individuals seeking to obtain (or overcome the denial of) long term disability benefits, and advocate for our clients as the Voice of the Disabled.  See our website for video presentations and information on our boutique practice and contact us to discuss your case.


We commonly work with clients who, aside from suffering from the physical impacts of cancer, are unable to re-engage in their occupation due to long lasting cognitive effects of chemotherapy and other medication treatment.  We are particularly keen on helping women who have endured the impacts of breast cancer, but experience deficits in their memory, and cognitive fatigue during and after chemotherapy.  Insurance companies regularly attempt to limit their liability under a two-year mental health limitation in the disability policies. We recently reviewed a decision against Unum Life Ins. Co. of America, brought by a anesthesiologist suffering from the aftermath of breast cancer.  Berg v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., No. 2:21-CV-11737-TGB-DRG, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49587 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 23, 2023) Dr. Berg suffered from cognitive impairment confirmed by testing that revealed her executive dysfunction and problems with sustained vigilance. Unum attempted to limit the claim to two years by alleging that Dr. Berg’s ongoing cognitive problems were based on mental health issues, rather than caused by her treatment including aromatase inhibitor therapy.  The Court rejected Unum’s position and held that Dr. Berg was disabled due to breast cancer and not, as Unum contended, from general anxiety disorder. Although Dr. Berg continued to be treated with regular therapy sessions throughout her cancer treatment, the court held that Dr. Berg was ultimately unable to continue her work “due to the affects and issues related to having cancer,” including from the cognitive side effects and the fatigue she experienced as a result of the cancer treatments and medications prescribed by her oncologist which left her unable to practice medicine.  In ruling for Dr. Berg that she remained disabled, the court reasoned, “to practice medicine, a physician must be mentally fit and without cognitive impairment. Fatigue, concentration problems, and medication side effects can all render a physician unfit to practice.”

We at Bonny G. Rafel LLC, provide legal counsel to individuals seeking to obtain (or overcome the denial of) long term disability benefits, and advocate for our clients as the Voice of the Disabled.  See our website for video presentations and information on our boutique practice and contact us to discuss your case.

The need to go out on disability leave is based on one’s inability to perform the duties of their occupation, not on the choice to step away from working. If you obtained disability coverage through your employer, the need to stop working due to a sickness or injury must occur while you are still employed. In our practice, we have noticed a particular “disconnect” between the disabled person’s intention to convey their need to stop working and the impact their choice of words has on the disability assessment.

Accepting that you are disabled can be very difficult and uncomfortable. This is especially true for our skilled and/or high-level professional clients such as doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives. It often feels easier to tell patients, clients, and employees that you are “retiring”, rather than admit you can no longer perform the job and need to step away. Many of our clients wonder, does it really matter what word is used? As recently seen in Cameron v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Can., the answer is a resounding yes. 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 200078 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 2, 2022).

In Cameron, the plaintiff was a radiology administrator who became disabled by a cardiac condition. He returned to work for a short period time, then determined that he would need to stop permanently due to the stressful nature of his job, which was impacting his health. Instead of returning to his doctor to address his ongoing symptoms, he “retired” from work. Months later, his condition continued to progress and manifest symptoms supporting his decision to stop working.

A common thread in disability claims is how active the individual is after filing their claim. Insurance companies require claimants to complete detailed forms describing their activities, asking them how they spend their day from morning to evening, what computer systems they use, even how often they watch TV.  It is important to understand that the real reason insurers want this information to prove that you are doing activities that suggest you are more functional than reported, or to identify an alternative job you can perform, so they can deny your claim.

Our clients ask us whether they need to suspend all of their social interactions, and give up gym memberships, etc. because they have a pending claim. The answer is a qualified “no”.  However, your activities post-disability must match your declared limitations. For example, if you claim that you cannot sit for long durations, traveling by air to Hawaii would create a question related to your ability to sustain siting.

In a case currently under review in our office, an individual suffering from Long COVID attended a family wedding, as noted by her doctor in her record.  The company denied the claim for several reasons, including its allegation that our client could not be that disabled since she went out and socialized. What they intentionally left out is the doctor’s note that indicated that our client was terribly fatigued for days after the wedding.  We represent another individual whose insurance company incredibly asserted that his disability could not be that bad because he was able to attend doctor and therapeutic visits.

In order to obtain private disability benefits, you must be able to show that you are unable to perform the duties of your occupation due to symptoms of a medical condition. An important component of your claim is determining whether your condition is related to an injury or sickness. Many private individual policies provide for lifetime benefits if the disability is caused by injury.

We typically think of an “injury” as occurring during an event such as a fall-down or motor vehicle accident. However, that is not necessarily the case. It is common, for example, that professionals such as dentists, physicians, and chiropractors can develop debilitating injuries over time from the repeated physical maneuvers required of their work. We represent many clients who have obtained lifetime disability benefits for such injuries, which can include carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar nerve entrapment, and serious cervical spinal issues.

An example of this type of case can be seen in Chapman v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of America, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155798 (D. Minn. August 18, 2021). Dr. Chapman, a practicing endodontist, had become disabled due to degenerative arthritis in her hands. Her condition was caused by the repetitive stress injuries she sustained in her decades-long dental career. The claim forms completed by Dr. Chapman, and the certifications of her treating providers, all indicated that her disability was the result of an injury. Nevertheless, Unum approved her claim as a “sickness” (thus limiting her benefits) because it had not been caused by one specific traumatic event.

The denial of a disability claim can be incredibly frustrating and confusing for claimants. Insurers typically provide only vague reasoning for the decision, leaving claimants in the dark to figure out why they were denied and what steps they should take to appeal the decision. They are advised of the deadline and procedure for appealing the denial, but often don’t know where to start.

If the claim was made under an ERISA plan, the denied claimant is entitled to request a complete copy of their claim file, which will contain “all documents, records, and other information” relevant to his or her claim. 29 CFR 2560.503-1(h)(2)(iii). It should include any and all internal notes, memos, correspondence, and reviews/reports by third parties, allowing the claimant to thoroughly understand the insurer’s decision-making. The insurer has a continuing obligation to provide an updated claim file on request throughout the appeal process.

Although ERISA regulations define “relevant” broadly, insurers frequently take it upon themselves to decide which documents do, and do not, need to be shared. Most of the time, the documents they withhold are helpful to the claimant. The recently-decided case of Jette v. United of Omaha Life Insurance Company, 18 F.4th 18 (U.S. 1st Cir. 2021) provides one example.

Insurance companies routinely hire physicians to perform a medical records review and use that review to decide whether a claimant qualifies for disability benefits. The use of reviewing physicians is not always problematic, as they may support the claim. A fair and thorough review can also provide valuable insight and identify evidence that can be provided by the claimant to shore up their case. Those potential benefits, however, are often outweighed by the reviewing physician’s anti-claimant bias.

Medical reviewers often work as independent contractors for many different insurance companies, and frequently earn more reviewing cases than they would treating patients. As their livelihood depends on providing reports that will please the companies that retain them, they simply cannot afford to be impartial. Insurance companies rely on reviewers’ opinions over the treating physicians who confirm that the claimant is disabled.

We know that treating physicians have far more information about their patient’s condition and functional abilities than insurance doctors. Their experience personally examining the patient, making their own clinical assessments, and engaging in discussions with the patient all provide information that is not available just by reading the records. Most treating doctors take the time to develop a formidable basis to decide what restrictions and limitations are appropriate.

If you or someone you love suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), you already know how debilitating this progressive and incurable illness can be. Nearly one million people in the United States currently live with MS. In honor of MS awareness month, we highlight this all-too common illness and share tips and resources for succeeding in MS-based disability claims.

MS is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the central nervous system – the part of your body that controls your ability to walk and think. It causes unpredictable symptoms such as pain, fatigue, impaired balance and walking, issues with memory and cognition, mood changes, blindness and/or paralysis. Although there is no cure for MS, there are therapies and medications available to treat its symptoms, reduce the frequency and severity of attacks, and to slow the progression of the disease.

MS affects everyone differently, and the nature and severity of its symptoms will vary by patient.  Many people who have been diagnosed with MS can continue to work for years before their ability to complete their job duties is impacted. We’ve previously shared examples of the types of accommodations that can be requested when that happens. Once symptoms have progressed to a point where accommodations are no longer enough, it may be time to submit a disability claim.

Insurance policies often have different terms of coverage for disabilities caused by “accidental injuries” and “sickness” so it is important that your claim is correctly classified.  A recent case by an endodontist disabled by advanced degenerative arthritis in her hands illustrates the tactics used by insurers to limit coverage.  Chapman v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am.  Unum asserted that her claim was based on sickness, which limits disability benefits to age 65.  Dr. Chapman claimed that she was entitled to lifetime benefits under the “accidental injury” clause in her policy on evidence that her arthritis condition was caused by repetitive stress injuries to her hands from work, causing micro traumas evidenced in x rays.

Secondly, Unum claimed that even if the condition was caused by injuries, it was not an accident, imputing knowledge to Dr. Chapman that she was highly likely to suffer this injury by her work.  The court disagreed, explaining, that it “strains credulity to conclude that any endodontist views the possibility of disabling arthritis simply by practicing endodontia as highly likely.  If this were the case, the dental field would be suffering a severe shortage of endodontists.”

The court considered the reasonable expectation of the insured:

We are often asked by our disabled clients if they must stop all cease or limit their daily activities in order to prove they are unable to work in their occupation.  The answer is no.  Insurers do poke around, asking claimants on “Activities of Daily Living” forms questions such as how far they can travel, what computer devises they operate, whether they tend to their yard, or clean their home or exercise at a gym.  Detailed prodding often seeks information about how the claimant spends their day from the moment they awaken to when they go to sleep at night.

We have handled appeals for clients who suffer from chronic pain but are able to mow their lawn, or clean their own home, or care for children.  Hartford, Cigna, Unum and Prudential often deny claims of individuals whose lives outside of work appear to be too busy or too “normal” to justify a disability claim.  However when rushing to deny a claim, the insurer does not ask how often the person is able to perform these activities, or under what conditions.  We have successfully appealed cases where the insurers have challenged our client’s claim because they admit to using a computer or smart phone. The insurer simply concludes that the person surely can perform the duties and demands of their sedentary job which requires sitting at a computer during the normal work day.    We have established the key difference between using a mobile device and computer periodically to check emails, or the news,  and functioning in an executive capacity, performing cognitive demanding, time sensitive work duties on a daily basis.   We advise our clients to be careful when completing insurer forms and to place their acitvities into the proper context.

A recent case by a Software engineer, disabled by cognitive and depression symptoms outlines the courts analysis on this issue.  In Chapin v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., Prudential alleged that Mr. Chapin was not disabled due in part to his doctor’s noting that he continued to exercise, ski and hike. The court noted “Being able to ski, hike and work out in no way transfers into or supports performance as a software engineer.”  Evidence supported that he was disabled from his cognitively demanding occupation despite his continued attempts to remain physically active.

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