Articles Tagged with claim denied

If a claim for ERISA disability benefits is denied or terminated, the claimant’s next recourse is to submit an administrative appeal to the insurance company. An ERISA long-term disability claim cannot be taken to court until the administrative appeals process is first exhausted. If the appeal is denied and the case proceeds to litigation, ERISA constrains the scope of evidence that is heard at trial and also limits the available remedies. (For this reason, ERISA is favorable to the insurance companies since it does not contain strong disincentives for denying meritorious claims).

It is important to understand that, with rare exceptions, the evidence submitted on appeal is the only evidence that will be considered in litigation—in other words, once the insurance company makes a final decision on an appeal, the file for litigation becomes closed. New supporting evidence does not get added during litigation and no witnesses are called to the stand to testify. The judge makes a determination based on the legal briefs submitted by the attorneys on both sides and a hearing at which the attorneys present arguments and answer any questions the judge may have. This makes ERISA litigation is a very particular type of litigation  governed by certain rules and limitations which make the process quite different from many other types of litigation such as personal injury.

For this reason, thoughtful preparation and submission of all relevant evidence for the administrative appeal is absolutely imperative. Appealing the denial of a disability claim is not just a matter of refuting the insurance companies’ reasoning for the decision or pointing out overlooked facts. Rather, it is the one opportunity to assemble the strongest possible body of evidence that can be presented in court if the appeal is denied.

Unum is one of the biggest disability and life insurers in the United States, owning subsidiaries including Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company and The Paul Revere Life Insurance Company. Unum generates billions of dollars in revenue and has boasted high rates of growth over the past few decades. Unum has also built a bad reputation for unfair handling of disability benefits claims over the years. Their aggressive and unfair tactics to avoid paying benefits to insured individuals resulted in numerous lawsuits and class actions for insurance bad faith practices, with trial losses totaling well over $100 million.

On top of individual lawsuits and class actions, in the early 2000’s, insurance regulators undertook a multistate market conduct examination to investigate reports of wrongful practices related to delaying and denying legitimate disability insurance claims.  As a result, Unum entered into a multi-state settlement agreement in 2004 in which Unum agreed to review denied claims, implement new claims handling procedures, and pay a $15 million civil penalty. On top of the multi-state settlement agreement, California regulators undertook their own investigation and Unum’s California settlement agreement entailed an additional $8 million penalty as well as changes to policy provisions and claims handling procedures.

Some of the most striking problems with Unum’s handling of disability claims that insurance regulators identified included the following:

Here at Kantor & Kantor we constantly find ourselves working closely with SSDI attorneys on behalf of our clients. Even more often, the evidence we secure on behalf of our clients during their LTD disputes can be utilized by your clients to support their SSDI claim as well. Here are some thoughts on our clients’ intersection between LTD and SSDI.

If we have a mutual client, use us as a resource to fight the substantive disability claim.

We can promptly provide copies of critical case documents, including testing or expert reports we have acquired in support of our client’s LTD fight. Our evidence saying a claimant is completely unable to work in any occupation on even a part time basis should be similarly useful for your SSDI case.

The riots throughout the United States have been heartbreaking on a number of levels. While the social and political implications will be something our country grapples with for years into the future, the economic effects will be felt immediately.

Small businesses, already devastated by the pandemic and government-mandated shutdowns, are now having to deal with damage from riots and looting.  How are businesses going to recover from this double assault on their bottom line?

Ideally, most businesses have insurance to provide security in the event of riots or looting.  However, many insurance policies have exclusions of or limits on activities that could be viewed as “terrorism.”  We do not yet know how insurers will categorize the riots.

Over the years, courts deciding ERISA cases involving accidental death due to autoerotic asphyxiation have issued mixed opinions as to whether benefits should be payable. In a recent decision, Wightman v. Securian Life Ins. Co., No. CV 18-11285-DJC, 2020 WL 1703772 (D. Mass. Apr. 8, 2020), a district court upheld the denial of accidental death benefits due to the insured’s death caused by autoerotic asphyxiation gone awry.

Plaintiff Anne Wightman sued Securian Life Insurance Company after it denied the accidental death benefit claim filed as a result of her husband, Dr. Colin Wightman. This policy expressly excluded death when caused directly or indirectly by, among other things, “suicide or attempted suicide, whether sane or insane . . . intentionally self-inflicted injury or attempt at self-inflected injury, while sane insane” and “bodily or mental infirmity, illness or disease.”

Dr. Wightman had been in therapy since the late 1990’s for his interest in sexual asphyxia. Dr. Wightman told his wife about his interest in “sex-related strangulation” in 2007 after he engaged in a sexual encounter that led to a complaint to the police, and Dr. Wightman losing his job. Dr. Wightman sought mental health treatment as a result from June 2007 through April 2010. He also was prescribed medication to help treat his addiction, which he took through 2015. The court noted that records from his mental health treatment highlighted Dr. Wightman as having “high risk sexual behavior [that] has led to possibility of charges for sexual assault.”

An employee who becomes disabled while covered by an employer-sponsored disability plan may qualify for short-term disability (STD) benefits and then long-term disability (LTD) benefits, based on the length of the disability and the terms of the plan. However, some LTD policies require that the employee not only apply for STD, but “exhaust” it, meaning receive the maximum amount of benefits allowed under the policy, before they may pursue LTD. If an employee received all but one day of the full STD benefit, they may still have to go through the appeals process or risk eligibility for the more valuable LTD benefit.

Kantor & Kantor was recently retained by a client, who we will refer to as John Smith for anonymity.  Mr. Smith was employed by a large corporation as a Material Handler who was responsible for all supplies and materials needed to manufacture medical devices.  Unfortunately, he became disabled by degenerative disc disease and painful spondylosis of his lumbar spine.  In addition, he suffered from sciatic nerve pain in his back.  His painful conditions necessitated medications which also caused side effects and impacted his functioning.

Mr. Smith’s company’s disability plan claim involved the situation described above, except that his STD claim was terminated just a few weeks before he received the maximum duration of benefits.  He unsuccessfully appealed his STD denial on his own before hiring the law firm.  In evaluating his STD claim and his potential LTD claim, the attorneys identified the following language in his LTD policy:

You have a business, and you were a responsible business owner.  You insured it against a variety of possible calamities, and included business income interruption insurance so you could continue meeting your financial obligations even if there is a disaster.

But then COVID-19 hit, and the government put everyone in your area on lockdown. Maybe your business can’t operate at all remotely, or maybe it “just” has taken a huge hit as people stay home.  Regardless, now is the time you need your insurance.

You May Hear Disturbing News

Over the past 15 years, I have represented hundreds of claimants in their claims for disability benefits governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, also known as ERISA.  If an ERISA disability claim is denied, a claimant must appeal that denial to the plan administrator or insurance company before he or she is able to file a lawsuit.  The appeals process is referred to as exhausting administrative remedies (though there is no administrative agency involved). The ERISA Regulations provide rules that an administrator must follow in order to give a claimant a “full and fair review.”  See ERISA § 503; 29 CFR § 2560.503-1 (Claims procedure).

Effective April 1, 2018, the ERISA Regulations were changed to require that an insurance company or administrator provide to the claimant copies of new evidence it obtains after a claimant submits an appeal so that the claimant has an opportunity to respond to the new evidence before the insurance company issues a final claim decision.  Some insurance companies, however, refuse to provide this evidence to claimants who filed their disability claims before April 1, 2018.

What if you fall into this pre-April 1, 2018 category?  Do you have any rights to know what the insurance company is relying on before it issues a final decision on your appeal?

As we continue to learn about efforts to challenge proton therapy denials by groups such as the Proton Therapy Law Coalition, the fundamental question becomes: Will the insurers actually get the message and change their ways? A recent article suggests that even when a jury awards a large punitive damages figure against a health insurer, the carrier is likely not truly getting the message.

In November 2018, an Oklahoma jury returned a $25.5 million verdict against Aetna for improperly denying coverage for proton beam therapy, a treatment the company considered experimental. In the largest verdict for bad faith in U.S. history, the jury found that Aetna “recklessly disregarded its duty to deal fairly and act in good faith” and awarded punitive damages. During the course of deliberations, the jury specifically discussed “sending a message” to Aetna and “making a statement” so Aetna would reevaluate how it handles appeals and requests for coverage.

However, many large insurance companies, if state allows them to, carry their own liability insurance for just this occasion. It appears that about 20 states do not allow insurers to carry such liability coverage. But insurers are now turning to products sold by offshore insurers beyond the reach of state regulators. In other words, a lot of insurers are not directly paying for the punitive damages awarded against them. This undermines the importance and impact of large jury verdicts on effectuating changed insurer practices.

Due to their depth and breadth of knowledge, the attorneys at Kantor & Kantor are frequently asked to speak at seminars, conferences, or give presentations. In June of 2019, partner Brent Dorian Brehm was asked by a national continuing legal education (CLE) provider to speak about long term disability benefits.  The seminar was titled “Mastering Social Security, Long-term Disability & Government Benefits.” Mr. Brehm took the attendees on a journey from the start to the end of a long term disability claim – and everything in between. He also covered relevant differences between disability claims governed by state law and those governed by ERISA.

While we cannot provide you with the actual presentation or the question and answer segment that followed, we can provide Mr. Brehm’s outline. This information is valuable to anyone at any stage in the long term disability claim process. It starts from the beginning – explaining what LTD benefits are. It then goes through tips on making a successful LTD claim. It addresses what needs to be done during the claim stage to avoid litigation – but be ready for it if that must happen. And finally reviews the nuts and bolts of litigating both an ERISA and bad faith disability claim.

What are long term disability benefits?

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