Articles Posted in Recent Court Decisions of Interest

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One of the only saving graces of disability cases falling under the ERISA regulation, is that if the Court decides that we have had “success on the merits” of the claim on behalf of our clients, the Court may, in its discretion order that our counsel fees must be paid by the insurer. This is so important, because without that happening, when we win cases in litigation in federal court, our client pays our contingency fee from the settlement or judgment.
On June 26, 2015 we blogged on the issue of counsel fee awards in ERISA claims and explained how the court may decide that a claimant’s attorney’s fees are paid by the insurer. To receive attorney’s fees from the insurance company rather than our client, the court must conclude that we have achieved “some degree of success on the merits.” Then it must then determine the appropriate amount which is based on our timekeeper records of our legal work on the case multiplied by a lodestar, an hourly rate. Keep in mind that our clients only pay us for litigation on a contingency basis; that means, if we win the case, they pay a set percentage of the award, not by the hour.
Over the years, courts have awarded our firm, particularly, Bonny G. Rafel, Esq., counsel fees to be paid by the insurer. This obviously reduces our client’s burden of paying our fees. We would love nothing more than to get our clients all of the disability benefits they deserve, and be paid for our efforts by the insurance company who terminated or denied the benefits in the first place.
Even when we are successful in litigation, the insurer has argued that the fees should be reduced for one reason or another. They have often tried to reduce fees based on what they think would be fair, and sometimes even try to get a “southern NJ” rate, (if our cases are in Federal Court in Trenton) suggesting that lawyers working in south New Jersey charge less than the northern NJ, Manhattan corridor amount.
On May 20, 2015 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in one of our cases, and after deciding in favor of our client, ordered that the insurance company, Liberty, pay all of our legal fees associated with the Third Circuit Appeal. Moreover, the Third Circuit determined that the hourly rate for counsel, Mark Debofsky, Esq. counsel from Chicago, Illinois should be $600.00 per hour and the hourly rate for counsel, Bonny G. Rafel, counsel from Florham Park, New Jersey should be $500.00 per hour.
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The 11th Circuit recently decided an important case in the grey area of when does the deadline for filing litigation expire in a disability claim. In Witt v. MetLife,2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 22321 (11th Circuit 11/25/14), Mr. Witt was denied benefits in 1997 but did not contact MetLife to contest the denial until 12 years later. MetLife performed a courtesy review consisting of an administrative review of documentation and evidence. MetLife ultimately upheld its earlier denial of 12 years before and in its final letter to Witt, noted that he had exhausted his administrative remedies under the plan and had the right to bring civil action under Section 502a or ERISA.

MetLife’s letter did not assert a time bar or statute of limitations defense, and MetLife never noted in its letters or interaction with Witt’s attorney that it would ever exert a statute of limitations as a defense to litigation. When Witt filed a lawsuit several years later, MetLife successfully dismissed the claim and the 11th Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision. The court reasoned that it was not necessary for MetLife to expressly state in writing that it was preserving its right to exert the statute of limitations as a defense.

MetLife was entitled to perform a “courtesy review” of the claim without thereafter binding it to a re-initiation of a statute of limitations. The court was concerned that if they require an insurer to expressly state that its reconsideration of a stale claim preserved its right to a statutory timeliness defense, “that outcome would prevent plan participants with meritorious though untimely claims from receiving a review and possibly benefits. At the same time, it would aid only those individuals who fail to file claim in a timely fashion and then have their subsequent claims denied on the merits”.

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Oftentimes, when reviewing a disability claim, the insurer will not consider how the insured was actually required to perform his occupation. Instead, the insurer, relying on the clause in its policy “the Covered Person’s occupation is as it is normally performed in the local economy” will define “own occupation” solely be reference to how the position could be performed in the local (or national) economy. This issue arises when the particular job requires additional duties such as travel to solicit business as was the case with Polnicky v. Liberty Life Assur. Co. of Boston, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS (N.D.Cal. Nov. 25, 2014). Mr. Polnicky was required to travel out of the office to attend open houses, conduct presentations, deliver loan documents, meet with realtors but Liberty’s vocational case manager determined that the occupation of Reverse Mortgage Consultant could be performed without traveling. The court disagreed with Liberty’s analysis because although it was permitted to consider his occupation as it is normally performed, it must also consider the material and substantial job duties that Mr. Polnicky was required to perform in his position for Wells Fargo.

Insurers cannot agree to provide coverage for an employee’s “own occupation” and then fail to consider the precise elements of the material and substantial duties of the occupation when evaluating a disability claim.

We at Bonny G. Rafel can help if your claim is denied because the insurer does not consider all of the duties of your occupation. Bonny G. Rafel, LLC We advocate for patients with disabling conditions and may be able to assist you in getting the benefits you deserve.

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Recipients of long term disability benefits often experience improvement in their condition when they stop working. For example, a construction worker who experiences severe back pain may experience a health improvement when he is not engaged in intensive physical activity on a daily basis. When you have been approved for long term disability, the benefits administrator will continue to request updates from your physician regarding your treatment progress. If there is any indication of a health improvement while on long term disability, the administrator may request an independent medical evaluation (“IME”), a functional capacity evaluation (“FCE”), or even hire a third-party vendor to follow and video your public activities. Your medical improvement could potentially be used against you to terminate your benefits.

A recent case from Michigan provides a great window into how this process can work. In Gillespie v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, the plaintiff was a former bank teller who underwent surgery to relieve persistent back and neck pain. The plaintiff briefly attempted to return to work following her surgery. However, this exacerbated her pain symptoms. After she stopped working, her condition improved, she was able to see her doctors less frequently, and to reduce the amount of pain medication she took. However, this improvement triggered a heightened review by Liberty. Her treating physicians reported to Liberty that she was still unable to work, but Liberty, unsatisfied, requested an independent medical examination (IME). The IME doctor reported that she could return to a sedentary position. Liberty terminated her benefits in a month after the IME. Despite appealing, her denial was upheld and she filed suit against Liberty.

Thankfully, the court found that Liberty’s decision was improper on a number of grounds. Liberty over-relied on their own doctors and consultants, as there is nothing in the record to indicate that Gillespie’s treating physicians’ opinions were considered. Most importantly, Liberty failed to address the fact that work exacerbated Gillespie’s pain symptoms and did not consider how a return to work again would not end in the same result.

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The law on marijuana use is rapidly changing nationwide. To date, 23 states have legalized some medicinal use of marijuana, with legislation pending in three additional states. Most notably, 2012 ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon legalized recreational marijuana use. Further, additional jurisdictions have decriminalized marijuana, and some prosecutors, such as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, no longer pursue low-level possession charges. This quickly evolving area of law will impact not only our criminal justice system, but also disability benefits claims. As legalized medicinal use of marijuana becomes more common, employers and their workers will face tough questions. Employers are understandably unlikely to allow a worker under the influence of marijuana to work. However, if an employee has not been able to find relief for their disabling conditions through any other means, should they be allowed to work if it is controlled through marijuana use? And if they work in a particularly sensitive occupation where driving or the operation of heavy machinery is necessary, is an employee’s use of marijuana to control their symptoms disabling? Unfortunately, there are no documented cases of medicinal marijuana use and disability, but we do expect to see some in the near future as access to the drug increases. However, other cases dealing with medicinal use of controlled substances and disability are instructive of how medicinal marijuana use may be disabling.

Certain jobs come with zero-tolerance for the use of even prescribed controlled substances. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Aerospace Medicine has published a lengthy and non-exhaustive list of prohibited medications, and Aviation Medical Examiners have been instructed to refuse issuance of an FAA medical certification to any person who use any drug on this list. In

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Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Heimeshoff, Lawyers are being extra-careful in determining the deadline for filing a lawsuit in court to protect a clients’ rights. Unfortunately, the insurers do not believe they are responsible to advise their insured if a deadline is approaching. A recent example of the insurer outfoxing the insured is Gordon v. Deloitte & Touche, LLP Group Long Term Disability Plan, 2014 U.S.App. LEXIS 6688 (9th Cir. April 11, 2014).

Ms. Gordon had appealed the denial of her claim several times. She let the claim lay stagnant, and then recontacted MetLife and requested they consider another appeal. Following intervention by the Department of Insurance, MetLife agreed to reevaluate the claim and did so. Detailed exchanges commenced, and the ultimate outcome was MetLife’s upholding its denial. Gordon filed a lawsuit and the 9th Circuit upheld the application of the Plans’ statute of limitations deadline for filing a lawsuit. The court held that MetLife’s reopening of Gordon’s claim file does not in and of itself revive the statute of limitations because it would discourage reconsideration by insurers even when reconsideration might be warranted.

Commentary: One would consider estoppel or waiver in this circumstance. Firstly, it is well established law that “a defendant will be estopped from setting up a statute of limitations defense when its own prior representations or conduct have caused the plaintiff to run afoul of the statute and it is equitable to hold the defendant responsible for that result.” However, in this case, the statute of limitations had already run before MetLife agreed to review the appeal again. Secondly, caselaw suggests that waiver requires an intentional relinquishment of a known right and consideration for the alleged waiver. In this case, there is no evidence that MetLife intentionally relinquished its right for the statute of limitations defense. However, MetLife did advise Gordon that she should file an appeal of their decision and in the event her appeal is denied she would then have the right to bring a civil action under ERISA. Unfortunately for Gordon, she embarked on a costly comprehensive appeal expecting that she would have the right to contest a denial in court, but that would not be the outcome.

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We are often faced with dealing with a claim administrator who services a self-insured plan. A recently published case highlights the issues that arise and is useful precedent for the cases we handle for our New Jersey disability clients. In this case, May v. AT&T, AT&T retained Sedgwick to perform the claims handling on its behalf and even made the decisions of which disability claims to pay. At&T defended its role in the claim, since it delegated all claims making decisions to Sedgwick, it believed would serve as a buffer from exposure for bad faith decision making. Many courts have held that a plan cannot be liable for arbitrary decision making that is influenced by the money saved by denying claims, if a separate claims administrator makes all of the decisions.

Here, however, the court saw through this house of cards. Sedgwick was the ERISA claims fiduciary. The court held that the actions of Sedgwick showed that Sedgwick demonstrated more loyalty to the funding entity which had employed it, than to its cestui que trust during the administrative process. The court noted “Sedgwick jealously guarded its client’s money, ” commenting, “This is one of the most bothersome aspects not only of this case, but of ERISA benefits cases in general.” Ms. May was faced with the unenviable task of appealing to Sedgwick each denial. “She hit a stone wall each time.”

The Court was particularly interested in considering whether it would be appropriate to remand the case to Sedgwick to reconsider the ongoing claim. They determined, ” if Sedgwick were ordered to take another look at the claims in light of favorable SSA decision Sedgwick could and probably would treat the SSA findings as simply something else to discount in comparison with its “independent, non-examining medical experts.” Assuming the court had the power to remand the case to the Sedgwick Briar Patch, that Briar Patch is one in which Sedgwick is accustomed to navigate.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court recently determined that a plan may contract to a particular limitations period even one that starts to run before the cause of action accrues as long as the period is “reasonable”. The Hartford plan provided that its three-year limitations period ran from the time that proof of loss was due under the plan.

Heimeshoff , an employee of Walmart, filed a claim for disability benefits with Hartford who provided the long term disability policy for Walmart employees. Hartford denied the claim and Heimeshoff appealed within the 180 day deadline. The denial was upheld several times. The plan provided that litigation must be filed within three years of the proof of claim. Heimeshoff filed her claim in federal court within three years of the final denial, but more than three years after proof of loss was due.

Taken literally, the claim had to be filed before the internal appeals period was exhausted. The general rule was that statute of limitations commence upon accrual of the cause of action.

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The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”) this week, and one of the tenets of the act contains new standards governing the application of pre-existing condition exclusions in insurance policies (see See Report of Congressional Research Service). Against the backdrop of the current legal debate in Washington, the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Lafferty v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am. recently addressed the meaning of a pre-existing condition in an insurance contract, and the extent to which an insurance company could apply such a limitation against its insured.

Mr. Lafferty became disabled due to congestive heart failure. He applied for disability benefits to Unum, who denied the claim on the basis that Mr. Lafferty had a pre-existing condition for which he had treatment during the three month look back period in the policy. Mr. Lafferty had a long-standing heart condition and was taking medication (aspirin) as a preventative measure against further cardiac events.

The pre-existing provision in the policy excluded medical conditions for which the insured “received medical treatment, consultation, care or services including diagnostic measures, or took prescribed drugs or medicines” three months before the policy’s effective date. Unum argued that, since hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and coronary artery disease could lead to congestive heart failure and the need for a pacemaker, Lafferty’s congestive heart failure was a pre-existing condition.