COVID-19 Update: Impact on Long Term Disability/ERISA Claims

Articles Posted in Recent Court Decisions of Interest

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Three recent New Jersey District Court Decisions threaten to undo years of progress in the growing body of law pertaining to long term disability cases in New Jersey. In the aftermath of MetLife v. Glenn, 128 S.Ct. 2343 (2008), we expected that more, not less judicial scrutiny of the acts of claims administrators would occur. The closer the courts inspect the procedures utilized to decide disability claims, the better chance our disabled clients have for a full and fair review of their claim.
New Jersey has unfortunately been moving against this tide. The first case, Scotti v. The Prudential Welfare Benefits Plan, 2009 U.S.Dist LEXIS 64559 (D.N.J.July 23, 2009) involves a man disabled by depression, pseudodementia and cognitive impairments. All of Mr. Scotti’s treating and examining physicians confirmed the diagnoses and the functional impairments. The court limited its review to whether Prudential abused its discretion, which means that Scotti carried the burden of proving that the administrative record did not contain substantial evidence to support Prudential’s denial. The court found that Prudential had enacted sufficient safeguards to minimize the chance that its decision was tainted by its own self interest to promote its financial interests. The court denied summary judgment for each party, finding that whether Scott’s impairments can be validly diagnosed by personal examination is a genuine issue of material fact.
RAFEL COMMENTARY: The Court accepted the opinions of the medical consultants hired by Prudential’s captive third party without evaluating their credibility. In other circuits, the courts recognize that these doctors could be “doctors for hire”, and their opinions far less than independent. See, for example the evidence discovered in Soloman v. MetLife, 2009 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 51507 (S.D.N.Y. June 18, 2009), showing that the reviewing doctors derived 90% of their income from paper medical reviews for third parties. We can learn alot from our neighbors across the Hudson River. BGRafel

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In this New Jersey disability claim based on a back condition including disc herniations, the Court affirmed the District Court’s opinion and outlines some important pointers to keep in mind when proving in an ERISA case that the insurer’s procedural irregularities require the denial to be overturned.

The Court faulted Liberty who was acting under a conflict of interest {pursuant to Glenn v. MetLife} for its “decisions that disfavored the employee at each crossroads and reliance on experts who merely reviewed incomplete medical records.”

Interestingly the peer reviewer suggested that Liberty undertake surveillance of its insured to check her functionality,which Liberty declined to do, noting “surveillance is an aggressive tactic” that itself may constitute procedural irregularity.” How can Liberty then, in other cases rush to surveil our clients who have confirmed, significant medical problems which cause functional limitations and restrictions?

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The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued a disappointing decision in Shore Orthopedic Group, LLC v. The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, 972 A. 2d 381 (NJ 2009) with regard to the payment of counsel fees in insurance disputes. Shore Orthopedic had purchased a disability policy to cover some of the expenses of the practice, if their associate orthopedist became disabled.

When the time came to pay on the policy, Equitable denied coverage, claiming the disabled doctor had not revealed a medical condition that had become apparent between the initial application for coverage and the payment of the first premium.

In litigation The Equitable failed to produce its own claim handling guidelines. In the lower court proceeding Shore Orthopedic obtained a court order requiring Equitable to produce its claims manual and awarded Shore Orthopedic $50,000 as a sanction against Equitable’s improper conduct in intentionally misrepresenting that such a manual did not exist. However, the court denied plaintiff’s counsel’s motions for counsel fees.

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