Articles Posted in LongTerm Disability (LTD) Insurance

As you know, churches occupy a special place in the law. For example, the First Amendment bars the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and churches, indeed almost all religioous institutions, get special tax treatment from the IRS.

However, you may not know that this distinction can also affect your employee benefits. Almost all employee benefits are governed by a federal law called ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974). This law provides various protections, including imposing a fiduciary duty on your employer to act in your best interests in administering your benefits.

However, if you are a beneficiary of an employee benefit plan established by a church (or other religious organization), your benefits are not governed by ERISA, because ERISA has an exemption for “church plans.” (There is also an exemption for government plans.) As a result, you may lose protections under ERISA if you are a church employee.

The short answer is “Yes;” especially if they are carefully drafted to adress disability issues. To be effective, a personal statement should be directed to an insured’s inability to perform the material duties of his/her occupation, or any occupation that one may be suited for by education, training and experience. The more detail, the better.

For many years, insurers routinely disregarded claimants’ personal statement describing their illness or occupational difficulties because the personal statement was not “medical evidence.” Or, a statement may have been disregarded because it described “subjective” symptoms, which were not “verified” by MRI’s, x-rays or diagnostic studies. In the last few years, the Ninth Circuit has been critical of insurers who have insisted on “objective evidence” to prove disabilities caused by pain and fatigue. See, Salomaa v. Honda LTD Plan, 642 F.3d 666 (9th Cir., 2011) (“Many medical conditions depend for their diagnosis on patient reports of pain or other symptoms, and some cannot be objectively established until autopsy. In neither case can a disability insurer condition coverage on proof by objective indicators such as blood tests where the condition is recognized yet no such proof is possible.”)

Recently we have seen courts accept personal statements of claimants, friends and co-workers as strong evidence of disability. See Demer v IBM Corporation LTD Plan, 835 F.3d 893 (9th Cir., 2016) (Statement by a friend attesting to side effects from medication) and Jahn –Derian v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 2016 WL 1355625 (C.D. Cal., 2016) (Statement from co-worker attesting to the plaintiff’s failed attempts to work with her condition was persuasive evidence).

Many of our clients suffer from chronic pain. For some, chronic pain is a symptom of an underlying condition, and for others it is the main condition.  In in either case, chronic pain can be and often is disabling. Because so many of our clients are affected by chronic pain, we want to spotlight and make people aware of an organization that provides information, support and education for those who suffer from chronic pain.

The American Chronic Pain Association’s mission is:

  • to facilitate peer support and education for individuals with chronic pain and their families so that these individuals may live more fully in spite of their pain; and

With increasing frequency, insurance companies like Cigna, Unum, MetLife and Prudential are denying long-term disability (“LTD”) claims due to discrepancies between what the claimant/treating physician is saying on the claim forms and what is stated in the medical records. Essentially, the insurance company will say that the symptoms being described for purposes of the LTD claim are not reflected in the treatment records, so there’s no proof that these were ongoing problems.

This often occurs because of one main reason:  people always want to put their best foot forward.  When the doctor starts the appointment with “how are you feeling?” it’s in our human nature to simply reply “I’m doing okay.” Generally, no matter how we’re actually feeling, we don’t want to be viewed as a complainer so we may tend to downplay our symptoms, even to the extent of telling our doctor that everything is fine…when it’s clearly not.  Usually, when we respond this way, we mean that everything is okay considering the circumstances we find ourselves in, or sometimes just that “things could be worse.”  But, that’s not how it later appears in medical records.  Instead, what this often leads to is medical records showing “no active complaints” or “patient is improving” or “symptoms have subsided,” which gives the insurance company all the ammunition they need to deny the LTD claim.

So, be clear with your doctors about everything you’re experiencing. Don’t hide your symptoms.  Be detailed, and offer real-life examples. Don’t just say “I’m having memory problems.”  Give examples of having lost something, or forgot something you’ve never before forgotten.  Instead of “I’ve been very fatigued lately” explain what you were doing (like shopping, or picking up a child, or gardening, etc.) and how your fatigue interupted or prevented you from finishing the activity.  Also, check with your doctor or the doctor’s staff, to make sure everything you’re telling him/her is making it into your records.

There may come a time in your life when you will need to consult with a lawyer – whether it be good news or bad news. We routinely speak with individuals who have had life, health, and disability claims denied by their insurance companies. Understandably, this is a very difficult time for the individuals who call us. We understand that, and try to make the process simple…but we need your help.

As lawyers, we are well-versed in the practice of law, but we rely on the information from our clients to steer us in the right direction and guide each case. It takes TEAMWORK to get a successful outcome for our clients.

Here are a few tips for talking to your lawyer and sharing with them what they need to know.

On May 11, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision in Orzechowski v. Boeing Co. Non-Union LTD Plan, et al., Case No. 14-55919 (9th Circ. May 11, 2017) upholding the application of the California law which invalidates “discretionary clauses” in Long Term Disability (LTD) plans and other life and disability contracts of insurance.

Prior to 2012, insurers in California (and many other states) were allowed to place “discretionary clauses” into their insurance policies. These clauses, while seemingly innocuous, actually made it significantly harder for insureds to challenge wrongful denials of insurance benefits in court. These clauses forced Federal Courts to review denials of insurance benefits under an “abuse of discretion” standard. In order to prevail under this standard, an insured not only had to show that they were entitled to the benefits under the contract, but they also had to show that the insurer’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”  The effect of this was that Court’s were routinely deferring to the “discretion” of the insurer thereby upholding their denial. This created is a much more difficult standard of proof for insureds to meet than in an ordinary civil lawsuit, where one need only prove their case by a “preponderance” of the evidence, and where Courts do not give any special weight to the evidence presented by the other side.  The result of the so-called discretionary clauses was that many insureds lost their lawsuits for wrongfully denied benefits even when, technically, they were entitled to benefits under the term of the contract.  Court’s would simply hold they could not find evidence the insurer “abused its discretion” or acted unreasonably enough so as to justify overturning the insurer’s denial of benefits.

In 2012, the California legislature passed California Insurance Code §10110.6, which provides that all discretionary clauses in California insurance contracts are null and void, if the insurance policy or plan “renewed” as of January 1, 2012. As a result, Courts will now look at the evidence anew, or “de novo” to make a determination of whether the insured is entitled to benefits, instead of simply deferring to the insurance company’s conclusions.  This is a much easier burden for insureds to meet than the older “abuse of discretion” standard.

For over 25 years, I have been representing individuals who have had life, health, and disability claims denied by their insurance companies.   I have represented over 3,000 people.   What is so disheartening to me is that I hear from clients again and again that they “almost gave up before calling” me. They tell me they were beaten down by the process, convinced their insurance company must be right, or that they didn’t know there were lawyers who specialized in handling their kind of case on a contingent basis.   While sometimes the client HAS waited too long for us to help them, usually my law firm, Kantor & Kantor, is able to step in and successfully resolve their claim.

However, I wonder just how many DO give up unnecessarily.   While my view of the insurance industry may appear very cynical, I am 100% convinced that the industry employs a strategy of denying as many claims as possible in the hope that claimants will just give up and go away.   I could write pages upon pages of stories about clients who had almost given up, but for whom we were able to obtain benefits with nothing more than a well written letter.   It sometimes seems like the insurance company is daring their insured to challenge the denial, or to get a lawyer.   If they do, the insurance company will reconsider its denial. If not, the denial will stand and the insurance company will keep the benefits which are rightfully yours.

In the last month, I have obtained over a $1,000,000 in total benefits for several clients who separately told me that they had seriously considered giving up before calling my firm.   This led to me to come back to a familiar thought, which was to wonder about all the people who did simply give up.   I decided to write this blog in the hope that maybe ONE insured might read it, and decide not to give up.   I am not writing this to get business. I have more than I need.   I practice in California, but this blog might be read by someone in Florida, or Illinois, or New Jersey, for example. If it is, and you were considering giving up trying to get your benefits, I am not suggesting you call me.   Go on the internet, or call your State Bar, and find an experienced attorney in your State.   The worst thing that happens, is that no one will take your case  —  but what if they will?

In addition to dealing with short term disability benefits, long term disability benefits, and health insurance denials, many of our clients are also tasked with applying for Social Security Disability benefits. On January 17, 2017, the Social Security Administration adopted new rules for evaluating mental disorders.  These rules reflect the most comprehensive revision in over 30 years to the criteria used to evaluate disability claims involving mental disorders. Changes to the rules reflect up-to-date standards and practices used in the mental health community. Most notably, the new rules reflect information from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (“DSM -5”), which is the mental health profession’s standard for classifying mental disorders. The new rules also reflect comments from members of the public and the expertise of disability policy experts, adjudicators, psychiatric professionals, and vocational experts.

Among the many changes are three new listings: 12.11 Neurodevelopmental disorders, 12.13 Eating Disorders, and 12.15 Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders.  Additionally, the titles of the listings have been updated to reflect the terms the American Psychological Association uses to describe the categories of mental disorders in the DSM-5.

This table shows the old and new listing numbers and titles:

OLD NEW
12.02 Organic mental disorders 12.02 Neurocognitive disorders
12.03 Schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders 12.03 Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
12.04 Affective disorders 12.04 Depressive, bipolar and related disorders
12.05 Intellectual disability 12.05 Intellectual disorder
12.06 Anxiety-related disorders 12.06 Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders
12.07 Somatoform disorders 12.07 Somatic symptom and related disorders
12.08 Personality disorders 12.08 Personality and impulse-control disorders
12.09 Substance addiction disorders 12.09 Reserved
12.10 Autistic disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders 12.10 Autism spectrum disorder
12.11 Neurodevelopmental disorders
12.12 Reserved
12.13 Eating disorders
12.15 Trauma- and stressor-related disorders

Under the new rules, these new mental health listings will remain in effect for five years. To read the full text of Social Security’s Mental Disorder Listings, click here https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/12.00-MentalDisorders-Adult.htm#12_04 .

 

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April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, which makes it a fine time to talk about the organization that provides information, support and education for those who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as it provides a wealth of information useful in a disability claim.

The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF) works to find a cure, to advance research, to increase knowledge, to empower the community and to ensure that those living with the disease enjoy the best quality of life possible. http://www.pdf.org/en/mission

This organization can provide valuable information for our clients and their families on topics that include: understanding the illness, coping with a recent diagnosis, managing PD and support for care partners and family. These are just a few examples of the many resources available on the PDF’s website. The website also offers helpful suggestions on living with PD and coping with the trials and difficulties that result from suffering from this progressive condition.

A 2014 study of Canadian workers revealed that most individuals vastly underestimate the likelihood that they will become disabled. While nearly half of workers surveyed believe that disability occurs rarely, in reality over 14% of Canadians are currently on disability, while roughly 33% of individuals will experience a period of disability lasting longer than 90 days during their working lives.

While this study only involved Canadian workers, there is no reason to believe the same statistics, and the same lessons, can’t be applied to American workers.

Mark Hardy, senior manager of Life and living Benefits at RBC insurance stated that “research indicates that Canadians are overly optimistic about avoiding a disability and lack of understanding reinforces the need for more education around this critical issue.”

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