The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., was enacted to provide minimum standards for voluntarily established plans by employers in the private industry for the benefit of their employees. Despite its name, ERISA also applies to disability benefits an employee may be entitled to if s/he becomes unable to work due to a disability, whether or not it was work-related.
Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits, in contrast, is a federal government program, and is available to most people, with certain exceptions, who have worked in any industry and contributed to the Social Security trust fund via the FICA tax.
Most ERISA plans encourage, or even require, that an employee seeking long term disability (“LTD”) benefits also apply for SSDI because any amount paid by Social Security is an offset for the insurance company, making its payments substantially less. However, being awarded SSDI benefits does not mean that the claimant will also qualify for LTD benefits because insurance companies are not bound by the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) determinations. Similarly, of course, the decision denying SSDI does not mean that the claimant will not qualify for LTD benefits under an ERISA plan. But, an ERISA plan administrator is likely to use a SSDI denial as evidence that a claimant does not meet the ERISA plan’s definition of disability.