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For those of us handling long term disability claims for people suffering from chronic back conditions, a clause in the MetLife LTD policies has caused us much tsuris (Yiddish word, “worry”). Their policies contain a limitation for “neuromuscular disorders” providing coverage for only two years for disorders of the spine unless one of six exceptions are objectively proven. Simply stated, this clause impacts a large pool of disability claims, since many of the disabled have back conditions that impair their ability to sustain static positions required for most work, such as prolonged sitting or standing. Some long term back conditions linger despite an absence of radiographs or MRIs, or EMGS documenting evidence of progression. A whole other category of disability, that caused by chronic pain and the side effects of necessary narcotic pain medication, is often overlooked by the insurer eager to deny claims.

We have handled many long term disability cases involving “failed back syndrome” where our clients have neuro-stimulators permanently installed in their backs to help them manage pain. Despite that evidence of the severity of their despairing condition, the absence of an “objective” test showing the precise cause of the spinal dysfunction was used to deny their claim.

Fortunately, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the significance of various elements of proof establishing the existence of a neuromuscular disorder which qualifies under the exceptions to the MetLife limited coverage. While MetLife emphasized that there were some equivocal test results showing ongoing radiculopathy (an exception to the limit), the Court of Appeals considered the clinical examination results of the claimant’s own specialists, ongoing consistent testing which aligned with the disorder and past positive EMGs as the objective evidence MetLife arbitrarily disregarded. They reversed the District Court in Hennen v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 26114 (7th Cir. 2018). This decision fortifies that the insurers must not require only a certain “objective evidence” to establish the necessary proofs.

 Reliance Standards’ unreasonable and bad faith claims handling , was carefully scrutinized by Judge Reeves, sitting in the Southern District of Mississippi.  Reliance and its competitors in the industry, as the Judge notes, “have conflicting missions of deciding who qualifies for benefits and ensuring those decisions do not undermine their own bottom line.”  Nichols v. Reliance Std. Life Ins. Co., No. 3:17-CV-42-CWR-FKB, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109526 (S.D. Miss. June 29, 2018).  This conflict of interest has become very evident to the courts, which frequently criticize the practices of disability insurers; yet insurers refuse to change their ways, seeking to preserve their financial interests.

The case involved 62 year old Ms. Nichols who spent her entire life working as a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points Coordinator at a chicken processing plant in Mississippi.  Her duties included training employees on quality assurance procedures and inspecting, packaging, and exporting meat products in processing areas, which were maintained at near-freezing temperatures. Ms. Nichols suffers from circulatory disorders, including Reynaud’s Syndrome rendering her unable to tolerate cold temperatures because doing so would cause her arteries to spasm and could lead to serious medical complications, such as gangrene.

Ms. Nichols’ medical conditions clearly prevented her from performing the duties of her occupation, which required exposure to cold.  Reliance sought a way to deny Ms. Nichols’ claim turning to the policy’s definition of  “regular occupation”—which defines a claimant’s occupational duties as they are “normally performed in the national economy,” rather than “the unique duties performed for a specific employer or specific locale.”  Reliance excluded Ms. Nichol’s duties associated with exposure to the cold by generally classifying her job to ignore the meat inspection, packaging, and exporting duties of Ms. Nichols’ occupation and denied her disability claim.  Ms. Nichols brought suit in federal court, and she won a resounding victory.

Our clients often ask how to retain employee benefits while on disability leave.  A source of this information should be an employee handbook or summary of benefits available from the employer.  Often all benefits such as medical coverage or life insurance continues while the employee is on short term disability.  Then if the employee does not return to work and receives long term disability, they are offered to continue such ancillary benefits providing they start to pay the premiums or convert the coverage in some way.  For instance an employer will issue a letter explaining the employee is eligible for COBRA medical coverage for a set period of time if they pay the premiums for the coverage.

An issue arises when the employee indicates an interest in continuing the coverage but the employer fails to submit the necessary paperwork to them. A recent example of this problem occurred in Erwood v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am._ 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56348. Erwood left work on disability, but the employer did not inform him or his family of his need to convert life insurance coverage to own it himself in order to remain covered and did not  provide him with the conversion forms. When Erwood died and his family sought life insurance, the carrier, CIGNA denied the claim because no conversion forms were on file. The employer defended its position by claiming that there was a packet of materials sent to Erwood, but the Court held  the packet was inadequate because it did not include the materials necessary to convert life insurance coverage or inform where to access such materials or even where to send them. The employer’s excuse that Dr. Erwood did have access to the life insurance program on its benefits internet portal was not enough. The Court held that “merely making an SPD on its portal does not satisfy its disclosure obligations of the plan administrator, the employer, especially in light of the fact that once Dr. Erwood’s FMLA leave expired, his access to the portal was terminated.” The Court entered judgment for the full life insurance benefit from the employer.

The Court explained that once Erwood, an ERISA beneficiary, requested information from the employer who was aware of his status and situation, the employer has a fiduciary obligation to convey complete and accurate information material to the beneficiary’s coverage and rights even if he has not specifically inquired about it. The fiduciary, in this case the employer, has a duty to inform when he knows that silence might be harmful. So if an employer makes an affirmative misrepresentation or fails to adequately inform a plan participant, that misrepresentation or inadequate disclosure can be material and when the employee detrimentally relies upon it and loses coverage, the employer can be liable.

We often suggest to our clients that they carefully limit their exposure on social media. It is simple for insurance companies to track a claimant’s whereabouts if they are regularly posting on Facebook, and not making it private, uploading pictures on Instagram, or other people are tagging them in photos or discussing their whereabouts. An example of the use of social media to deny a claim occurred recently in Goros v. Sun Life Assurance Co., No. 2:16-cv-233-FtM-38CM, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137446 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 28, 2017).  Mr. Goros claimed that while he had a motorcycle he was sorrowfully unable to use it due to his back and arthritic conditions. However, social media of his girlfriend reported their long trips and motorcycle rides. The Court took this into account when challenging his credibility and as establishing his ability to perform occasional travel which was one of his job duties.

People that are disabled do not have to stay indoors, they can continue to perform their daily activities and readjust to live a full life with their impairment. However, if they demonstrate through their non-work activities that they can perform physical or mental requirements which are similar to those of the workplace, or if they are more social than they claim to be, this creates potentially legitimate concerns by the disability insurance company of the veracity of the claim and the depth and breadth of the impairment.

It is notable that many states, including New Jersey have passed laws regulating an employer’s access to the personal account social media website of an employee.

We have been following the Courts’ treatment of mental or nervous disorders limitations in group long term disability policies. (See blog, Disability Caused by Physical Impairment, July 2015)  Recently, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals joined other courts holding that a claimant is disabled by physical conditions alone, then the mere presence of a psychiatric component does not justify application of a mental health limitation to a claim.  In Okuno v. Reliance Std. Life Ins.Co., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16423 (6th Cir. Sept. 7, 2016),  Reliance applied the one year limit on benefits because there was the presence of a psychiatric component to her claim regardless of the physical component to her disability. The court rejected Reliance’s rationale that as so long as there is a comorbid psychiatric condition the limitation applies.

Every federal circuit court to consider the meaning of the phrase “caused or contributed to by” has read it to exclude coverage only when the claimant’s physical disability was insufficient alone to render him totally disabled. See George v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co, 776 F.3d 349 (5th Cir. 2015).  The insurer bears the burden to show that the exclusion applies to the case.  “The effect of an applicant’s physical ailments must be considered separately to satisfy the requirement that the review be reasoned and deliberate.”  See Okuno . In order to overcome the insurers’ application of this mental health limitation to continued benefits, the claimant must claim total disability as the result of a purely physical condition.

What if a physical condition is covered, but the symptoms include depression, which is a mental illness? Courts caution that policy terms and precise medical facts of the claim must be examined.  See, for example, Leight v. Union Sec. Ins. Co. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68412 (D.Or. May 24, 2016).   Leight’s Aspergers’ Disorder is expressly exempt from the definition of “mental illness” in the policy but Union Security attempted to apply the mental illness limitation, since the disorder produces disabling symptoms of anxiety and depression.   The court determined that the mental illness limitation did not apply since Aspergers was a ‘covered condition.”

Disability insurers love to deny claims based on their medical consultant’s conclusion that the claimant has “sedentary capacity.” The insurer’s vocational counselor swiftly identifies various jobs that the claimant can allegedly perform without performing a full or fair investigation of the transferable skills. Does the inquiry end at the point it is established that the individual can sit in a chair at a desk for a period of time?

Just as important is whether the individual has marketable skills to perform a “desk job”, since virtually every “sedentary” job requires strong computer skills.  In our experience, the qualifications related to real time computer and technology use are under investigated in the insurers’ rush to deny.

We have seen some changes in the collateral information the insurers collect regarding our clients.  For instance. on the “activities of daily living” forms they must complete, our disabled clients are asked whether they own a computer, whether it is a desktop or laptop, what they use the computer for (pay bills, read news, facebook).  Be prepared for these are not innocent questions. It’s direct purpose is to establish that the claimant has full use of a computer and a skill that is “transferable” to the workforce.   In short, claimants should not overstate their computer use at home.

Insurance coverage is based on the provisions of the contract and the proofs submitted by the claimant. In medical claims, a full and fair investigation of the facts concerning the particular claim requires the insurer to consult with medical professionals who are supposed to independently apply their expertise to the case facts and determine if the medical treatment is covered.

When coverage is improperly denied, the claimant will seek information about the denial, including the investigation of the claim and the rationale of the medical professional involved in the decision. Often the insurers rely on third party vendors who provide medical doctors to review the cases. These doctors have no direct contact with the claimant, and simply review medical records. Of course these doctors are paid for their time, but the question becomes, can they afford to be independent if they rely on this stream of income from a vendor who is unlikely to continue to hire them if their decisions do not support the insurers’ decision. The insurer must take steps to reduce potential bias. See Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105, 116, 128 S. Ct. 2343, 2351; 171 L. Ed. 2d 299 (2008).

Discovery into the medical reviewers is a basic necessity, but insurers often hide behind ERISA laws and fail to disclose information about the reviewers. We who represent the consumers in these cases, seek the identity of the reviewers, their credentials, how much they are paid for their services, how often they are used by the insurer, whether they see any patients of their own, and basically, if financial incentives skewed their decision.

Multiple sclerosis is a serious and unpredictable medical condition which effects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. Worldwide, more than 2.3 million people are affected by MS and every week approximately 200 people are diagnosed. Over 400,000 Americans live with MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recognizes that “Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are moving us closer to a world free of MS.” While the root causes of MS are still being researched and debated, it is believed that some form of virus or environmental trigger causes the body’s immune system to target benevolent cells in the myelin sheath.  The myelin sheath is a protective fatty tissue around the nerve fibers that serves as a form of insulation to protect the electrical impulses traveling the nerves of the CNS. The Institute for Neurodegenerative Disorders explains how with MS, the myelin is destroyed, and “forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name”, appearing in the CNS and bringing with it an abundance of symptoms.

There is no known cure for MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends that people with MS begin treatment with Avonex, Betaseron, Copaxone, or Rebif as these “drugs help to lessen the frequency and severity of MS attacks, reduce the accumulation of lesions in the brain, and slow progression of disability.” Many therapies are also available to treat MS symptoms.

Many individuals can continue to work for a long time before the symptoms associated with this disease, often fatigue, cognitive deficits, pain, spasticity, bladder problems, and muscle weakness impair their ability to continue working. People with MS may request work accommodations, such as: moving a workstation closer to the bathroom, allowing for longer breaks, allowing to work from home, allowing a flexible work schedule, parking closer to the work-site, adjusting desk height if a wheelchair or scooter is used. Once symptoms progress, many people with MS are unable to continue working and file for disability benefits.

Rochow v. LINA 2013 FED APP. 0338P(6th Cir 2013). In a groundbreaking decision, the 6th Circuit awarded the Rochow’s estate both disability benefits due plus equitable relief under 502(a)(3). Rochow had been due the benefits since 2002, but had been tied up in legal battles with LINA (a subsidiary of CIGNA) ever since. The disability claim was litigated which resulted in a finding by the district court in 2005 that LINA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. LINA appealed; however the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. Upon remand to determine the amount of money due to Rochow’s estate, Rochow demanded an equitable accounting and asserted that LINA must give up (disgorge) the profits that it realized by holding onto the disability benefits ultimately awarded to Rochow.
The court cited a recent Supreme Court case,CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 1312 S.Ct. 1866 (2010) which found the “surcharge” remedy is available in equity to “provide relief in the form of monetary ‘compensation’ for a loss resulting from a trustee’s breach of duty, or to prevent the trustee’s unjust enrichment.’ The court noted, “Insulating LINA from disgorgement in this case would exacerbate the existing systemic conflict of interest.” Here the court justified its award, reasoning “LINA breached its fiduciary duty by continually ignoring its own plan definitions which resulted in wrongly denying benefits for five years after the initial request.” Disgorgement of the profits CIGNA earned by holding Rochow’s money was required to prevent unjust enrichment. The court awarded $3,797,867.92.

We at Bonny G. Rafel LLC handle disability cases against Cigna and all insurers, focused on restoring disability benefits and all other ancillary benefits that ended with a claim denial. This case demonstrates a new direction the courts may take under Amara to disgorge profits the insurers earn by wrongly denying claims.

The Supreme Court of the United States recently granted certification in the matter of Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 496 Fed. Appx. 129 (2d. Cir. 2012), in which the Second Circuit determined that Heimeshoff, who had been denied disability benefits in 2005, had no remedy against Hartford because she was in violation of her policy’s three-year time-limit–known as a statute of limitations–for bringing suit to contest the denial of her benefits. The applicable policy contained a statute of limitations requiring Heimeshoff to file suit within three years of after her “proof of loss” was required to be given. Heimeshoff applied for and was denied Short Term Disability benefits in 2005. She filed an administrative appeal contesting the denial as required under the policy, and received a final denial in 2007. She filed suit in 2010, less than 3 years after the final denial. Although Heimseshoff contended that the three years did not begin to run until she received the final denial and her right to sue was triggered, the Second Circuit read the limitations provision literally and concluded that “it does not offend the statute to have the limitations period begin to run before the claim accrues.”

The Supreme Court will resolve a split in the law amongst Circuit Courts nationwide. For example, recent cases in the Third Circuit have held that in the case of an insurance company denying disability benefits upon a finding that the insured is not medically disabled under the terms of the policy, the statute of limitations does not accrue until the plaintiff receives a final denial of benefits on administrative appeal. In Whittaker v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166983 (E.D. Pa Nov. 26, 2012), the court found Whittaker’s claim timely by holding that the statute of limitations began to run at the time of Hartford’s final denial. Among other considerations, the court explained, “Although Whittaker’s benefits were first terminated on August 7, 2008, her case would have been dismissed for failure to exhaust her administrative remedies had she filed this lawsuit before her administrative appeal was denied on June 2, 2009. To start the running of the limitations period before the conclusion of the administrative appeals process would encourage plan administrators to drag their feet in deciding administrative appeals so as to minimize the amount of time a plaintiff has to prepare her case.” In Rumpf v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74388 (E.D. Pa. Jul. 23, 2010), the initial denial of Rumpf’s benefits stated that she had the right to appeal the denial and to file an ERISA suit in the event the appeal was denied. The letter upholding the denial on appeal stated that Rumpf had the right to file an ERISA suit at that time. When Rumpf filed suit four years after the final denial, the defendants claimed that the statute of limitations had lapsed by calculating from the time of the initial denial. The court disagreed, finding that Rumpf’s claim did not accrue until the final denial and was therefore timely. The court explained, “In this case…the Court concludes it would be unfair and inequitable to hold Plaintiff to any disadvantage because she followed the instructions in the letter she received…denying her benefits. Consistent with the Plan, this letter specifically noted that Plaintiff could appeal, and stated that…she would…have the right to bring a civil action [if her appeal was denied]; in turn, Plaintiff justifiably filed the internal appeal on January 13, 2004, which was denied on February 16, 2005. Plaintiff, meanwhile, received no document mentioning any limitations period or any specific timetable within which she must file her lawsuit.”

As is evident from Heimeshoff and other similar decisions, ERISA is full of traps for the unwary, such as time limitations and various other contractual provisions that a typical consumer would be unaware of. Do not handle your claim on your own and simply trust the insurance company to “do the right thing.” Contact us at Bonny G. Rafel for a consultation to ensure that your ERISA rights are protected.

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