Articles Tagged with de novo

Kantor & Kantor, LLP recently achieved a victory in Olis-v.-Unum-Life-Insurance-Company-of-America No. 8:19-cv-01347-JVS-DFM, __ WL __ (C.D. Cal. July 27, 2020), a lawsuit seeking payment of an ERISA-governed disability claim based on debilitating migraines. Disability cases involving subjective reports of pain may be the most difficult benefit cases courts have to consider. This case provides a good example of what makes for a convincing claim, and what courts are looking for in deciding whether to award benefits. Our client was represented by Kantor & Kantor attorneys, Brent Dorian Brehm, Sarah Demers, and myself, Peter Sessions.

The plaintiff in this case was a 36-year-old woman who was employed by Enterprise, the rental car company, as an account specialist, which involved significant computer use. She had suffered from headaches for much of her life, but in 2016 those headaches intensified into recurrent migraines, which were accompanied by vertigo and visual disturbances. She took a medical leave of absence to address her problems and then tried to return to work, but she only lasted another month before she had to stop working entirely. During this time, Plaintiff visited numerous doctors in a number of specialties, tried several medications, and attended countless physical therapy sessions.

Plaintiff submitted a claim for LTD benefits to Unum Life Insurance Company of America, which Unum denied on the ground that she had not presented sufficient evidence to prove that she could not return to work. Plaintiff unsuccessfully appealed, and then filed suit against Unum under ERISA. The parties filed cross-motions for judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 52.

Kantor & Kantor won a notable victory against the Life Insurance Company of North America (also known as “LINA” or “Cigna”) in Elliott v. Life Insurance Company of North America, Inc., No. 16-CV-01348-MMC, 2019 WL 2970843 (N.D. Cal. July 9, 2019), a case in the San Francisco Bay Area involving a denial of long-term disability benefits to the plaintiff who is disabled by trigeminal neuralgia.

The plaintiff, Elliott had to stop working in his position as Vice President of a brokerage firm due to symptoms from trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain condition affecting the trigeminal nerve, which is a cranial nerve responsible for sensation and certain motor functions in the face. Elliott was experiencing symptoms including shooting facial and head pain on a daily basis, migraines, difficulty talking, as well as medication side effects including sedation and cognitive slowing.

LINA had approved Elliott’s initial claim for short-term-disability, but denied his claim for long-term disability benefits and upheld its denial on appeal, stating that there was a lack of objective evidence to support his diagnosis. After the Social Security Administration approved Elliott’s social security benefits claim, finding him disabled, LINA had another opportunity to reconsider its decision deny Elliott’s claim but declined to do so.

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?

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.

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