Articles Posted in disability claim

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In an ERISA disability case, a court will not overturn an insurer’s decision to deny a claimant benefits unless it is clear from the administrative record that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” This can be a tough bar for someone covered by a disability policy.  In fact, courts in the Sixth Circuit (the circuit which includes Tennessee) have noted that the arbitrary and capricious standard is “highly deferential”, and “the least demanding standard of review of an administrative record.”

Even still, an insurer must justify its decision to deny long-term disability benefits to a claimant. In fact, Sixth Circuit courts have stressed that the arbitrary and capricious standard of review still “has teeth.” As one court noted, “merely because our review must be deferential does not mean our review must also be inconsequential.”

In other words, a court will not rubber stamp an insurer’s decision to deny benefits, even in an ERISA disability case. Rather, they will take a close look at, not only the the insurer’s decision, but also  the process the insurer followed in making its decision.

For example, in Calvert v. Firstar Fin., Inc. (6th Cir. 2005), the court observed that an insurer’s failure to conduct a physical examination of the patient “may, in some cases, raise questions about the thoroughness and accuracy of the benefits determination.”  In that disability case, the plaintiff maintained that her insurer acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it denied her claim for long-term disability benefits without examining her in-person, and instead, merely relied upon a physician’s cursory review of her medical file.

The Calvert court did not hold that a file review can never take the place of an in-person evaluation.  In fact, it noted that there is nothing “inherently objectionable” about an insurance company basing its decision on a physician’s review of the file, even when that review results in a different determination than the claimant’s treating physician.

Still, the Calvert court made it clear that the file review has to be rigorous, especially when it contradicts the opinions of the treating physician.  In Calvert, the court noted that the physician’s review of the file did not describe the data he reviewed.  In fact, the physician’s review made no mention of the surgical reports, x-rays or CT scans in the record.  He also did not discuss the claimant’s functional capacity evaluation.  As a result of the physician’s lax review of the claimant’s medical file, the court determined that the insurer acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying benefits.

If there is a larger takeaway from Calvert, it is that a court’s “deferential” standard of review of an insurer’s denial of benefits does not mean that insurers can offer up a simplistic defense of their decision.  Insurers still have to show that they based their determination on an extensive and contextual evaluation of the claimant’s medical condition.

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If you have a disability insurance policy governed by ERISA and you are challenging an insurance company’s denial of disability benefits, you’ll have to convince a court that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and not just incorrect.

This is a tough bar to meet in disability insurance cases in Tennessee, or anywhere else. Even if a court believes that the claimant is entitled to benefits, it will still uphold the insurer’s denial as long as it is based on a “reasoned explanation.”  As the Sixth Circuit has explained, this “is the least demanding form of judicial review of administrative action.”

There is one area of good news for disability claimants. If an insurer denies disability benefits due to an exclusion listed in the disability insurance policy, then the insurer will have the burden of showing that the exclusion applies.

Insurance policies include exclusions which allow insurers to deny benefits under certain defined conditions. For example, many insurers will not pay benefits if the insured engaged in an unlawful, reckless or dangerous activity that resulted in the disability, death or accident at issue.  Under this type of exclusion, for example, an insurance company may not have to pay if the insured individual is injured or dies in a hang gliding accident.

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Many disability insurance policies provide two eligibility standards for benefits. The first is sometimes referred to as the “Your Occupation” (or “Own Occupation”) standard.  Under this standard, a claimant is eligible for benefits only if the disability prevents him or her from performing the essential duties of his or her own occupation

The second standard is referred to as the “Any Occupation” standard.  Under this standard, a claimant is eligible for benefits only if the disability prevents him or her from performing the “essential duties of any occupation.”

Under many disability policies, claimants seeking long-term disability benefits must only meet the “Your Occupation” standard in order to collect benefits for a pre-defined period, usually 18 months to two years. At the end of that period, claimants will then have to qualify for the more rigorous “Any Occupation” standard in order to continue receiving disability benefits.

To understand how the standards work, consider the following scenario: A UPS driver with permanent and chronic back pain cannot lift objects heavier than ten pounds.  She will likely qualify for disability benefits under the “Your Occupation” standard.  The reason is simple.  If she cannot handle most of her packages, then she cannot perform the “Essential Duties” of a delivery driver.

After a two-year-period, however, under many policies the driver will then have to qualify under the “Any Occupation” standard in order to continue receiving benefits.  Here, the insurer’s determination is more complicated:  Can the driver work as a dispatcher, customer representative, or any other occupation in which she did not have to lift heavy objects?

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In an ERISA disability case, an insurance company cannot deny a claim without any explanations. Instead, under 29 U.S.C. §1133, it has to provide written notice of the “specific reasons” for the denial, and it must allow a “full and fair review” of any denial, i.e., an administrative appeal.

An important regulation from the United States Department of Labor provides some guidance on §1133.  Specifically, 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503–1 (the “claims procedure regulation”) requires, in part, that any denial of a claim include the following information:

(1) The specific reason or reasons for the denial;

(2) Specific reference to pertinent plan provisions on which the denial is based;

(3) 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; and

(4) Appropriate information as to the steps to be taken if the participant or beneficiary wishes to submit his or her claim for review.

The claims procedure regulation, in particular, provides notable protections for claimants:  An insurance company must not only explain its reasons for denial, but also, it must inform the claimant what information or documents he or she needs to submit in order to appeal.  The insurance company also cannot withhold important documents from the claimant.  For example, in Hamall-Desai v. Fortis Benefits Ins. Co. (N.D. Ga. 2004), the district court held that the requirement of a “full and fair review” of a denial meant that the insurance company had to provide the claimant with copies of all the documents, records and other information it relied on in making its decision to deny the claim. The court explained that, by failing to provide this information, the insurance company prevented the  claimant from preparing an adequate appeal because she could not respond to the evidence the insurance company used to support its decision.

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In an ERISA disability case, a claimant who challenges a denial of long-term disability benefits by filing a court action is generally not able to present evidence to the court that is not in the administrative record. The administrative record is legalese for all of the medical records, documents and other information obtained by and submitted to the plan administrator during the initial stages of the claim and through the appeal process.

For example, if a claimant in an ERISA long-term disability case has an important affidavit from her supervisor showing that her disability prevented her from performing her job, she will need to submit that affidavit to the plan administrator while her claim is being reviewed and before the final decision on appeal is made by the plan administrator. If she fails to submit the affidavit before the appeal process is concluded, a court likely will not consider her affidavit, no matter how compelling.  Rather, the court will only evaluate the materials that the plan administrator reviewed in determining whether the denial of benefits was proper. (This is why it is so crucial to ensure that the administrative record is complete).

Because courts are generally unwilling to consider any evidence which is not in the administrative record, plaintiffs are generally not entitled to discovery from the insurance company.

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The definition of “total disability” is among the most important definitions in a disability policy and, consequently, in disability lawsuits.  It is also one of the most confusing.  For example, can you recover disability benefits for total disability if you can still perform some aspects of your job?

In a recently published Sixth Circuit case, Leonor v. Provident Life & Acc. Co., (2015), the court wrestled with an insurance company’s interpretation of its definition of “total disability,” and construed it in favor of the insured.  The Plaintiff, the insured, a practicing dentist who also managed several dental offices, suffered a spinal injury that prevented him from performing dental procedures.  He was still able, however, to manage his dental offices.  In fact, after his injury, he bought more dental offices.  Those investments proved lucrative and the Plaintiff’s overall income actually increased after his injury.

Following his injury, Plaintiff claimed total disability benefits under each of his three disability policies.  Initially, the Defendants, the insurance companies, began paying his disability benefits.  Later, the Defendants stopped paying disability benefits under two of the policies when they discovered that the Plaintiff was able to manage his dental offices.  In denying the Plaintiff’s disability claim, the Defendants pointed to the definition of total disability in his policies:

“’Total disability’ means that because of Injury or Sickness:

You are unable to perform the important duties of Your Occupation….”

(emphasis added)

Defendants maintained that, under the policies, the Plaintiff would have a “total disability” only if he could not perform all of his occupation’s important duties.  The Defendants pointed out that the Plaintiff could still perform the “owner/operator” duties of his occupation, and, therefore, did not have a total disability.

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If you’re making a disability insurance claim, the type of plan you have may matter more than any other fact in your case.  Consider, for example, two plaintiffs who have the same occupation and suffer from the exact same disability, only Plaintiff “A” has an employer-provided plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), while Plaintiff “B” has an individual long-term disability policy.  Plaintiff A may have a far more difficult time collecting her disability benefits.

The reason is straightforward: In an ERISA case, the standard of review (the amount of deference a court will give to a plan administrator’s denial) is high and the plaintiff must show that the denial of benefits by the plan administrator was “arbitrary and capricious.”  Making matters more difficult for our Plaintiff A, the court will usually examine only the record which was before the plan administrator in determining whether the plan administrator’s decision should be overturned.

In contrast, a claim brought under an individual disability policy for failure to pay benefits is a claim which will be brought pursuant to the Tennessee common law of breach of contract.  Therefore, Plaintiff A can take her case all the way to a jury decision by merely showing that there is a triable issue as to whether she suffers from a disability as defined in her policy.