Articles Posted in ERISA

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Medical records are an extremely important source of evidence in your disability claim. The records provide proof of the symptoms that disable you; they provide evidence of your treating provider’s opinion about your condition; and they provide proof of the period of time for which you have been disabled.

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Why Do I Have to File a Lawsuit?

When an ERISA long-term disability appeal gets denied, the next step is, potentially, to file a lawsuit in federal district court. Some clients already know that they would like to settle their case and ask, why can’t we just negotiate a lump sum settlement with the insurance carrier? Why do I have to file a lawsuit? In short, while plaintiffs’ attorneys would likely be amenable to negotiating informally, insurers generally refuse to come to the table until a formal complaint has been filed. The weight of a formal lawsuit perhaps creates more real incentive and pressure for the insurer to settle, and the process is well established and well understood. Having already filed suit, one benefit of going through the court process for a plaintiff is that, in the event a settlement can’t be reached, there is the possibility of taking the case to trial within a shorter timeline –the complaint has already been filed, a judge has been assigned, and certain deadlines have already been put on the court calendar. The desirability of accepting a lump sum settlement varies from case to case.

What Does a Win at Trial Look Like?

Many employers today provide group life insurance coverage for their employees. A benefit adjacent to group life insurance is accidental death and dismemberment (“AD&D”) insurance. AD&D insurance pays you a benefit if you lose a limb or an eye, or it may pay your beneficiary additional life insurance benefits if you die in an accident.

Most AD&D policies define accident with terms like “sudden,” “unforeseeable,”  “unintentional,” and “external cause” – not exactly concrete and easy to follow guidelines to determine whether a death was accidental or not. When a claim is made to an insurance company for accidental death benefits, the insurer considers the events and actions that caused the person’s death and decides whether the claim meets the policy’s definition of accident. If the death was caused by an injury and not an illness, how did that injury happen? Was the person going about their normal life and was struck down in some way that they did not expect? Were they doing something dangerous and likely to cause injury? As one judge said: “What is an accident? Everyone knows what an accident is until the word comes up in court. Then it becomes a mysterious phenomenon, and, in order to resolve the enigma, witnesses are summoned, experts testify, lawyers argue, treatises are consulted and even when a conclave of twelve world-knowledgeable individuals agree as to whether a certain set of facts made out an accident, the question may not yet be settled, and it must be reheard in an appellate court.” Brenneman v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 411 Pa. 409, 192 A.2d 745, 747 (1963)

The decision of whether a death was an accident often hinges on whether the person’s death was “foreseeable.” When analyzing whether a death was foreseeable, the insurer generally first considers whether the person expected to be seriously injured as a result of their actions. Consider a scenario where a person died when they were injured diving off a tall cliff. If that person was a champion cliff diver and regularly dove off tall cliffs, they would not expect to be seriously injured performing such a dive. Second, the insurer considers whether that expectation was reasonable. In the case of our cliff diver, because she had been cliff diving regularly without injury, her expectation to not be injured while cliff diving was reasonable. This analysis becomes more confused in the real world where the facts are not always so clear.

The United States Department of Education recently announced it would forgive the student debt of more than 300,000 disabled borrowers. Could this impact your long-term disability benefits?

The topic this pertains to is offsets (amounts that can be subtracted) that insurance carriers are allowed to take from their claimants’ benefits. The “Other Income” provision of your group long-term disability policy sets forth the types of “income” a claimant might receive that the carrier would be allowed to offset – subtract – from the benefit it pays.

Typically, group LTD policies list things like: Social Security Disability Income benefits, Dependent Social Security Disability Income benefits, Workers’ Compensation benefits, certain pension benefits, and income from third party settlements, among others. The claimant must notify the carrier when he or she receives these benefits and the carrier will then calculate the amount it gets to offset, as well as whether it believes it has “overpaid” the claim.

I want to preface this blog post by saying that I do not have a long-term disability. However, for 16 years of my life, I suffered a life-threatening illness –an illness that I was told that I would either a) die from or b) never fully recover from. Time and time again during those 16 years, I was told to give up hope for any semblance of a normal life, or just resign to dying prematurely. For 16 years, I believed that I should not have hope and there came a point in my journey when I finally gave up all hope and I resigned myself to dying. As fate would have it, on the very same day that I had resigned myself to dying, I ended up having life-changing encounters with human beings who inspired me to fight back and begin the journey to reclaim my hope. Reclaiming my hope was not easy, to say the least. It took me two long and arduous years to reclaim my health and to restore hope, overcoming the odds that were stacked against me. One of those odds was my insurance company –it had told me time and again that I was not sick enough to have my medically necessary treatment covered by insurance. Those two years of fighting for myself, fighting back against the mental defeat I felt because of insurance telling me that I didn’t deserve benefits, during those two years, there were times when it was incredibly hard to hang on to any semblance of hope. I had to remind myself that, “Hope exists. If for no other reason than the Dictionary says it’s a word.”

After I fully healed from the illness, I took my newfound hope and went on to serve as Policy Director on Capitol Hill for a small non-profit dedicated the illness that I had once suffered. In that role, I advocated to raise awareness of that disease, and to get a Federal Bill passed on behalf of people suffering that disease. Once again, the odds were not stacked in my favor. I ended up spending over 10 years advocating with that tiny non-profit on Capitol Hill. During that time, I lost more people to the disease than I can count (meaning, they died), and I heard from people all across the country who had lost loved ones to that disease. Trust me when I say, despite my faith in God, it was not always easy to remain hopeful –I admit that, at times, my hopeful spirit dimmed. But finally, in December 2016, provisions from the bill passed. That day in December was one of jubilation…and yet of humble quiet. The passage of the bill was subdued because it was long-overdue and long-awaited for 16 years, especially by the family after whose daughter the bill was named. The bill was named after Anna Westin who died in 2000 after insurance denied benefits for her treatment.

On ‘the Hill,’ I learned many things. One of the most eye-opening things I learned was: No matter how worthy the cause, the odds are stacked against you if you want to get a bill passed. In fact, in 2016, out of the 12,000+ pieces of legislation that were introduced, only 3% (three percent) passed/were enacted into law.

Here at Kantor & Kantor, we like to refresh and give updates to certain parts of the process we use to help individuals. We feel that the more people understand their insurance benefits, the better they will be able to fight when benefits are denied. Long-term disability (LTD) insurance is a large part of this process, so we will explain the basics here.

Long-term disability insurance is an insurance policy that protects an employee from loss of income in the event that he or she is unable to work due to illness, injury, or accident for a long period of time.

LTD can provide benefits for work-related accidents or injuries that are covered by Workers’ Compensation insurance, but there usually will be an offset, where the LTD benefit is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount of Workers’ Compensation payment. LTD also does cover an employee in the event of a personal accident such as a car accident or a fall.

One of the most crucial pieces of evidence in supporting a long term disability claim is the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician that he or she is disabled.

Many physicians are more than happy to assist their patients with forms required by the LTD provider and in some cases, narrative accounts of their patient’s disabling condition.

Sometimes, though, even with the support of your physician, problems can still arise. Often, this is because of the office visit notes your physician makes with each of your visits. Phrases such as, “doing well,” “symptoms improved,” “responding well to medication,” while meant as shorthand by the doctor that her treatment plan is working, are often used by the insurance company to conclude that you are no longer disabled.

Weissman v. United Healthcare Ins. Co., et al., 19-cv-10580, (D. Mass. Mar. 8, 2021) (Judge Allison D. Burroughs). A putative class of former patients, who were denied life-saving, quality-of-life maintaining proton therapy cancer treatment, brought a putative class action alleging that UnitedHealthcare and the lead putative class plaintiffs’ employer-based health plans breached their fiduciary duties by wrongfully denying medically necessary proton therapy cancer treatment. Lead class plaintiff, Kate Weissman, and her family were able to come up with over $125,000 to privately pay for medically necessary proton therapy treatment to treat her cervical cancer diagnosis after UHC denied her treatment in 2016. Kate, along with other proton therapy patients—Zachary Rizzuto and Richard Cole—brought this putative class to vindicate their rights under ERISA and for potentially countless others challenging UnitedHealthcare’s application of narrowly-restrictive, flawed, out-of-date internal coverage guidelines to wrongfully deny claims for proton therapy.

On March 8, 2021, the Court denied in full UnitedHealthcare’s motion to dismiss the putative class’ (1) claims for denial of benefits and (2) claims for breaches of fiduciary duty.  The Court concluded that Plaintiffs had plausibly alleged that Defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying their claims for proton therapy. Order, p. 17. Above and beyond this determination by the Court, Judge Burroughs also made clear that “[n]otwithstanding Defendants’ arguments to the contrary, Plaintiffs have alleged more than just that their requests for pre-authorization for PBRT were arbitrarily and capriciously denied. Rather, they have alleged that UnitedHealthcare has developed and applied the PBRT Policy [UnitedHealthcare’s separate coverage policy] to broadly deny coverage for PBRT, even though it is safe and effective, because it is more expensive than IMRT. . . If these allegations are borne out, § 1132(a)(1)(B)’s remedy of repayment of benefits may turn out to be inadequate, and it would therefore be premature to foreclose the possibility of equitable relief, including an accounting and disgorgement [of UnitedHealthcare’s profits from wrongfully denying PBRT claims].” Order, p. 19 (citations omitted).

Finally, the Court also concluded that “even if Plaintiffs can ultimately prove only that UnitedHealthcare breached its fiduciary duty by impermissibly denying their benefits, it is possible that relief under § 1132(a)(1)(B) would still be insufficient. In other words, it is conceivable that even past due benefits, prejudgment interest, and attorneys’ fees may not put Plaintiffs in the position they would have been in but for UnitedHealthcare’s alleged misconduct.” Order, p. 20.

When a plan participant is denied a retirement plan benefit, he is required under ERISA to ask the plan, usually through a plan administrator or other fiduciary, to review the denial before he can file a complaint in court. This is referred to as exhausting the plan’s administrative remedies. These administrative remedies and procedures that a plan participant must follow are laid out in the governing plan document and in the summary plan description. This process allows the plan administrator to reconsider its position with perhaps additional information, explanation or evidence. Once the participant gets to a “final” denial, he can then file a complaint in court. Typically, a claim is filed when a participant believes he is entitled to a benefit, or more of a benefit, and the plan tells him he is not. However, when a plan participant believes a fiduciary to the retirement plan has breached a fiduciary duty under ERISA, the question of whether a participant must exhaust the plan’s administrative remedies is unresolved and depends on the jurisdiction where the case is filed.

While the majority of courts of appeals and district courts have found no requirement to exhaust administrative remedies for breaches of fiduciary duty claims, there are two circuits that have ruled the opposite. In a fairly recent case, Fleming v. Rollins, Inc., No. 19-cv-5732 (N.D. Ga. Nov. 23, 2020), the Eleventh Circuit confirmed again its minority stance that exhaustion is required for breach of fiduciary duty claims. Citing Bickley v. Caremark RX, Inc., 461 F.3d 1325, 1328 (11th Cir. 2006). The Second Circuit, on the other hand, has not yet directly addressed the question; however, numerous circuit courts within the Second Circuit have routinely found no exhaustion requirement for breach of fiduciary duty claims.

To be sure, this is not deterring defense attorneys from bringing motions to dismiss on the basis of failure to exhaust. In the decision, Savage v. Sutherland Global Services, Inc., 2021 WL 726788 (W.D.N.Y., 2021) defendants argued exhaustion was required for statutory ERISA claims because the exhaustion requirement is specifically written into the plan document. The court was not impressed with the argument explaining “while plan fiduciaries may have expertise in interpreting the terms of the plan itself, statutory interpretation is the province of the judiciary.” Savage at 4, quoting De Pace v. Matsushita Elec. Corp. of America, 257 F.Supp.2d 543, 557 (E.D.N.Y. 2003).

One of the most crucial pieces of evidence in supporting a long term disability (LTD) claim is the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician that he or she is disabled.

Many physicians are more than happy to assist their patients with forms required by the LTD provider and in some cases, narrative accounts of their patient’s disabling condition. Sometimes, though, the doctor is unable or unwilling to assist. There are a variety of reasons for this: lack of time, lack of compensation, misunderstanding of the level of involvement required by the doctor, employer/hospital rules preventing them, and in some cases, a disbelief that their patient is actually disabled.

If you have a disabling condition and you are making an LTD claim, or you are receiving benefits, your doctor’s participation in the process is essential. Without a doctor’s support, in most cases, your claim is finished. If your doctor has notified you that he or she will not be able to assist you with your claim, it is important to ask him or her to tell you the reason for their decision. If it is anything other than lack of belief that you are disabled, often, further information can change their minds. The offer of additional compensation for their time is a big help. Explaining that they will not have to do anything more than the forms or a letter – that they will not have to testify in court – goes a long way in changing minds.

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