What is the single greatest mistake long term disability claimants make?

Preparing their own internal disability appeal.

It is that simple.

A case worth hundreds of thousands of dollars can be converted to zero – near instantly – when a disability insurance claimant attempts to prepare his or her own administrative appeal.  There are several reasons for this, as discussed below.

No. 1.    Disability Claimants and Disability Insurers Have Grossly Unequal Resources

There is a complete disparity of resources when disability claimants attempt to take on their disability insurers.  Viewing this from the claimant’s perspective, what resources are typically available to the average insured person?  Presumably, there is a home computer or tablet, a printer, access to an internet fax program, and copies of pertinent medical records.   All these instruments and evidence can be used to assemble a homemade disability appeal.

By contrast, however, a disability insurer is often a multi-billion-dollar company, publicly traded on the stock market, with profit motivations designed to satisfy shareholders, including institutional investors.  It has significant financial resources – all of which are at the ready to be deployed against a disability claimant.  This is just the macro-picture of the disparity.

On the micro-level, disability insurance claims departments are populated by claims adjusters who have been trained to handle and process disability claims, oversee medical exams, and have been taught how to selectively read medical exam records.  Disability insurance companies have in-house physicians, nurses, and large expense accounts to pay unfriendly experts who routinely perform thousands of reviews and exams favorable to the insurers. Finally, the disability claim is one of typically 300 to 400 other claims these claims adjusters oversee simultaneously.  In short, they know how to deny a claim and are not able (or willing) to dedicate a material amount of time to review your medical as a true fiduciary should.

No. 2.    Not Fully Understanding the Reason for the Denial

A disability insurance denial is usually a lengthy letter. These letters contain required notices, citations to insurance contract language, several addresses, claims identifying information, and so on.   Sandwiched in-between all this writing is the rationale for denying the claim.  The rationale is the “why,” or explanation for why, a sought-after disability benefit is not being paid.  This can be confusing, even to the lawyers who work on these claims regularly.

For example, based on the language a disability insurance company uses to deny a claim, a claimant might mistakenly believe that the insurer is claiming they are not actually suffering from an illness when, in fact, the insurer is really disputing whether a person who is ill can still work.  Another often confusing rationale is the challenge to the supportive medical evidence.  By way of further example, is the insurer saying the evidence is non-existent or inadequate or is the insurer seeking another type of evidence altogether?  Furthering the opportunity for confusion, an insurer typically will not explain to a claimant the difference between objective and subjective evidence.  Misunderstanding why a claim is being denied can doom it.

No. 3.    Overlooking Critical Supporting Documentation

Medical records are obviously key evidence in supporting a disability claim.  The trouble is that medical records, alone, are rarely enough to the win a case.  The records require in depth explanation.  The records must be tied to showing a physical or mental limitation.  Often the records, themselves, provide foundation evidence for other documentation – such as a Functional Capacity Examination (FCE) or vocational rehabilitation analysis.  These are areas of expertise to which a claimant may not have ready access to make their case. Leaving out this crucial documentation can also doom a claim during the appeal process and leave a lawyer little to work with if the case eventually goes to court.

No. 4.    “Writing a Letter”

When was the last time you wrote a letter and the reader was so moved to start paying you instantly?  Has that ever occurred?  Has it even occurred to anyone you know personally?  In short, it does not happen.  As fine a person as you may be, no one will ever approve a disability benefit based on a written letter – no matter how beautifully composed or compelling in narration.

Somewhat cynically, disability insurers love receiving ‘a letter’ explaining why a person cannot work.   So long as that letter is not accompanied by medical evidence, the insurer will always be able to deny the claim based on no ‘proof of loss’ or ‘proof of claim.’  A disability claimant will likely never be treated better by an insurance company than in the 30-day period following their ‘writing a letter.’  The case is over, the insurer knows it, but the insurer does not want you to know it – yet.

The Bottom Line

While disability claims are not (lawfully) supposed to be adversarial, they truly are.  It is you against them.  You forget that rule at your peril.  No claims adjuster is there to help – their intention, and job, is to keep costs down by paying on claims as infrequently as possible.  They do their job the way that you did your job – they aim to do it well.  And doing it well means denying your claim.

Recently, we participated in a mediation with a large national insurer who is showing up more and more in our litigation files. Our client is a thirty-year employee who suffered from a terrible spinal condition and failed back surgery. Three medical treating physicians and an independent medical examiner found her totally disabled. One opined she was incapable of ever working again. She drained her 401(k) to pay her living expenses. She has applied for Social Security and is awaiting a decision.

The insurer denied the claim and has paid nothing for two and a half years while this financial wreckage has ensued.

The insurer’s claim denial was based upon a file review performed by a single East Coast doctor who never examined the insured and was contracted through a national vendor. The national vendor has a contractual relationship with the insurer.

The file reviewer’s report lists the medical evidence she claimed to have reviewed which includes MRIs (both actual images and reports). The file reviewer then opines that the restrictions could not be “substantiated” because there were “no MRI reports” in the file. This is not a misprint – the insurance company doctor lists the MRIs in the reviewed materials portion of the report and then somehow writes that those images do not exist.

Obviously, the denial is made in bad faith and is particularly sloppy.

At mediation, the insurer who has paid nothing now argues that the insured should get a mere stipend of because her “estimated” disability income is really the responsibility of the Social Security Administration, and the insurer merely provides a secondary benefit. We told the insurer to take a hike, and we will fight to get the decision and try to set precedent.

Unfortunately, this is the typical scenario in an ERISA group long-term disability case today.

More and more, private disability insurers who collect hundreds of millions in premiums are basically turning over the financial responsibility to the federal government to re-insure these private insurance contracts. Disability insurance companies argue this other income “offsetting” is keeping insurance rates low, but what they omit mention of is that this same “low-rate insurance” is not really insurance at all. All the insured has purchased is the right to apply for Social Security and maybe get a small stipend from the insurer.

The insurers have figured this out. The long-term disability contracts require an application to Social Security to get benefits flowing from the federal government, regardless of whether the insured even qualifies. Long-term disability contracts typically contain a 180-day waiting period (the same as Social Security). These same long-term disability contracts contain a “minimum” benefit usually of $100 per month.

Why do the insurance companies pay a $100 per month? Disability insurers know that an employee earning $40,000.00 a year with one or more dependents is really is never going to collect much private disability insurance, and if they don’t pay just a little something to the insured, the contract will fail for want of consideration. In other words, the contract will fail because the insured is getting nothing in return.

So, you have a long-term disability insurance contract, but do you really have any insurance coverage?

Western Michigan University-Cooley Law Review has published an article authored by J.J. Conway, Esq. and Trever M. Sims analyzing the Wilkins v. Baptist Healthcare Systems decision and its impact on ERISA benefits dispute resolution within the Sixth Circuit. The article, published in WMU-Cooley Law Review’s Summer 2018 issue, serves in part as a 20-year retrospective of what was, at the time, a concurring opinion in a seemingly routine disability benefits dispute. The article is entitled “Refining Wilkins: A 20-Year Look at the Recurring Factors Used in the Sixth Circuit’s Resolution of Disability Claims Under ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B).”

The typical scenario in a benefits claim works something like this:  An employee becomes ill or injured.  An employee takes a medical leave of absence.  If the employer has sponsored a disability program, a claim for benefits is filed.  If there is a short-term disability plan, that benefit program may or may not be ERISA-qualified.  If the condition continues past the short-term period, then a claim would normally be expected to transition into a long-term disability claim. Often, the short-term disability claims administrator is also the administrator (and perhaps the insurer) for the long-term program.

In practice however, the rules and regulations applicable to disability claims tend to complicate matters.   If, for example, the short-term disability claim is denied or prematurely terminated, an appeal period is triggered. The appeal period runs 180 days, which can overlap with the commencement of the long-term disability coverage.

This is where trouble can start.

Sometimes a plan is written so there is a seamless transition from short-term to long-term disability.  The long-term disability benefit period will not start until the short-term benefit claim has been exhausted or paid out in full.   In other words, the filing of the short-term application will preserve an employee’s right to long-term disability benefits.  Sometimes, an application must be filed, regardless.

That is what the disability claimant in Kennedy v. Life Ins. Co. of North America, 718 Fed. Appx. 409, 410 (6th Cir. 2018) found out, the hard way, in a recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.  In Kennedy, the claimant was receiving short-term disability benefits but had yet to file a claim for long-term disability benefits.  According to the Court, the “the first time” long-term disability was ever mentioned was in a demand letter, not an application. As a consequence, in a terse opinion, the Court affirmed the claim’s dismissal.  Writing for the majority, Judge Thapar wrote:

The district court was right: Kennedy never applied for long-term benefits. The first time he even mentioned long-term benefits was in his attorney’s letters—both of which came long after any such claim was due under the plan’s terms. Kennedy therefore failed to exhaust LINA’s administrative process.”  Id. (citing Garst v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 30 Fed. Appx. 585, 593 (6th Cir. 2002)).

Bottom line: always file the long-term disability application or secure a written confirmation from the plan that the long-term disability claim is preserved while the short-term claim is being evaluated or appealed.

The U.S. Department of Labor has decided to implement ERISA disability benefits claims regulations. The regulations were proposed at the end of 2016, with a scheduled January 1, 2018 effective date.  The regulations were designed to ensure various due process protections of ERISA disability claimants under 29 U.S.C. § 1133 and 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1, as well provide guidelines for claims administrators for the treatment of certain evidence submitted in support of disability claims. The regulations are set to take effect on April 1, 2018 and will be applicable to all claims filed after that date.

On January 5, 2018 the USDOL announced the implementation would be delayed in order to assess the reasonableness of the regulation. The announcement issued by the USDOL stated:

The Department announced a 90-day delay of the applicability date of the final rule – from Jan. 1, 2018, through April 1, 2018 – to give stakeholders the opportunity to submit data and information on the costs and benefits of the final rule. The Department received approximately 200 comment letters from the insurance industry, employer groups, consumer advocates, and lawyers representing disability benefit claimants, all of which are posted on the Department’s website. Only a few comments responded substantively to the Department’s request for quantitative data to support assertions that the final rule would drive up disability benefit plan costs by more than the Department had predicted, cause an increase in litigation, and consequently reduce workers’ access to disability insurance protections.

Notably, the USDOL announcement also stated:

The information provided in the comments did not establish that the final rule imposes unnecessary regulatory burdens or significantly impairs workers’ access to disability insurance benefits.

The Summit previously discussed the changes in-depth in a prior post, which may be found here.

The Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section of the American Bar Association has published an article authored by J.J. Conway, Esq. discussing the history and usage of Social Security Disability Insurance awards in long-term disability insurance cases.  The article, published in the Health and Disability Law Committee Newsletter, discusses the interplay between Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and ERISA long-term disability benefits from both a financial and evidentiary standpoint. The article is entitled, “Tracing the Evidentiary Path of Social Security ‘Other Income’ Offsets in Disability Cases Through Statutes, Case Law, and Regulations.” (Winter 2017). The article is available here, Tracing the Evidentiary Path of Social Security Other Income Offsets in Disability Cases

The Litigation Section of State Bar of Michigan has published an article authored by J.J. Conway, Esq. discussing the importance of developing a theory of the case early in the litigation process.  The article, published in the The Litigation Journal, discusses ways that litigators should formulate a theory of the case early in the pretrial process in order to litigate more effectively. The article is entitled, “A Strong Theory of the Case: The Faster It Is Developed, The Better The Results” (Fall 2017). The article is available here, The Litigation Journal (Fall 2017) – A Strong Theory of the Case

J.J. Conway was a featured speaker at the State Bar of Michigan’s Annual Meeting and NEXT lawyer development conference held in the Cobo Convention Center in Detroit, Michigan on Friday, September 29, 2017. Conway made presentation to new attorneys and those interested in self-employment in a presentation entitled, Hanging Out Your Shingle in 2017.  Conway has presented similar lectures to the State Bar Annual Meeting’s attendees in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Detroit at prior annual meetings. He has also written on the topic for various legal publications.

The Michigan Court of Appeals has held that, for the purposes of a claim under the Court of Claims Act, the statute of limitations may begin to run prior to any actual deprivation of financial benefit.

In Bauserman v. Unemployment Insurance Agency, No. 333181 (Mich. Ct. App. Jul. 18, 2017), the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (defendant) appealed a trial court’s decision denying the defendant’s motion for summary disposition.  The Court of Appeals held that a violation of the Court of Claims Act did exist, reversing the trial court’s decision.

The dispute centered on the defendant’s use of an automated decision-making system to both “detect and adjudicate suspected instances of employment benefit fraud.”  Id. at 1.  Once the system ‘detected’ an instance of benefit fraud, it would issue a notice and questionnaire in regards, either to the employee’s home address or an online unemployment portal which was rarely, if ever, accessed by employees.  Following the notice, defendant would routinely “intercept” tax refunds, garnish wages and initiate collection activity through a court of law.  Id. at 2.

Plaintiffs alleged that the Unemployment Insurance Agency’s use of “an automated decision-making system for the detection and determination of fraud cases, whereby the computer code in the automated decision-making process contains the rules that are used to determine a claimant’s guilt, and those rules change the substantive standard for guilt or are otherwise inconsistent with the requirements of due process.”  Id. at 8.

The Court of Claims Act, MCL 600.6431(1), provides, in relevant part, that “[n]o claim may be maintained against the state unless the claimant, within 1 year after such claim has accrued, files in the office of the clerk of the court of claims either a written claim or a written notice of intention to file a claim against the state or any of its departments….”  In actions for property damage or personal injuries, the claimant only has “6 months following the happening of the event giving rise to the cause of action” to file a written claim.  MCL 600.6431(3).

The court identified the determinative question as “what event gave rise to [the plaintiffs’] cause of action.”  Bauserman at 5.  The triggering event was either when the defendant issued notices informing the plaintiffs they were disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits or when the defendant actually seized the plaintiffs’ property.  Id.

In McCahan v. Brennan, the court held that MCL 600.6431 is to be “understood as a cohesive whole.  Subsection (1) sets forth the general rule, for which subsection (2) sets forth additional requirements and which subsection (3) modifies for particular classes of cases that would otherwise fall under the provisions of subsection (1).”  492 Mich. 730, 742 (2012).  Thus, while subsection (1) of MCL 600.6431 may provide a longer time frame to file a notice with the Court of Claims, subsection (3) shortens the time period for applicable claims to six months after the plaintiff’s cause of action accrues, or “when the wrong on which they base their claims was done.”  Bauserman at 7.

The Bauserman plaintiffs alleged a violation of the Michigan Constitution, Article 1, § 17, which provides that “[n]o person shall be… deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law….”  Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant failed to “follow the minimum due process standards required under federal law with respect to the collection of unemployment debts, including overpayment and penalties.”  Id. at 8.

The court held that while the plaintiffs claimed “the wrong on which their claims are based took place when defendant intercepted federal and state tax refunds, garnished their wages and forced repayment of unemployment benefits[,]” the alleged wrong actually took place “when defendant issued notices informing plaintiffs of its determination that plaintiffs had engaged in fraudulent conduct, and they were not given the requisite notice and opportunity to be heard.”  Id. at 9.  Therefore, the “economic deprivation” encountered by the plaintiffs was a secondary result of the original deprivation of due process, and not the proper point to adjudge the applicable statute of limitations.  Id.  Therefore, it was the notification of the deprivation of unemployment benefits, not the actual seizure of said benefits, which constituted the statutory point of claim accrual.

The Bauserman court cited Frank v. Linkner, a 2017 Sixth Circuit decision, which held in part that a plaintiff’s claims could accrue prior to a plaintiff incurring “calculable financial injury….”  894 NW2d 574 (2017) (Docket No. 151888), slip op at 14.

Following this decision, it is clear that a plaintiff’s pre-suit inquiry into the possible statute of limitations for claims arising against the State of Michigan must not be limited simply to the date the actual harm accrued, but should also account for any conduct preceding the harm which may have actually triggered the statutory cause of action.

In twenty years of handling employee benefit disputes, I have made a few observations of the ways to keep a long-term disability insurance claim in “approved status” or “open” as insurance companies say. A disability claimant’s medical file should include accurate and documented history of disability and should always be up to date. A disability claimant should avoid common pitfalls that can doom an otherwise valid claim.

Employees who file for disability insurance benefits have legitimate and provable claims. Many wait until their medical situations become unbearable before beginning the disability claims process. So why are so many claims denied by disability insurance companies? The reason is simple.

The filing of a long-term disability claim is an adversary process, and given this reality, appearances matter.

The claims departments of long-term disability insurers are populated with adjusters who believe that people seeking disability benefits do not want to work. In some of the most serious medical cases our firm has handled, the insurers have denied the claims for patently absurd reasons, bred of a kind of cynicism rather than objective factual consideration. A claimant seeking disability benefits cannot make the insurance company’s job easier. The interests are adverse. It is best to accept this, not fight it, and to adjust to avoid common claims filing mistakes.

What can a claimant do to make the process smoother?

1.Stop Using Social Media Now. Searching social media sites is the new weapon of choice in disability claims departments. Online searches are replacing surveillance as the preferred form of “gotcha” by the nation’s insurer. Claims files now regularly contain public images downloaded from Facebook or Instagram that are cited as evidence that a disabled claimant is essentially leading a normal life and should be able to work. We have written before about this before in the Summit. (See Long-Term Disability Insurance Update: An Online ‘Friend You May Not ‘Like’.)  Often, claimants do not heed the warning. Social media in this context is misleading. Unless a post is time-tagged, it is difficult to determine whether a posted picture of the claimant was taken recently (i.e., while claiming disability benefits) or years earlier. Sometimes insurers do not produce these materials until after a long-term disability appeal is filed, to deny the claimant the opportunity to explain the images or provide some context such as, ‘this photo was actually taken before I became sick.’ We can longer recommend a middle ground, sign off social media until the claim is over.

2. Reasonable Requests for Information Are Reasonable. Many claimants have experienced long delays in payment after they initiated a claim. Once the claim is approved, they are surprised when the insurer then asks for subsequent medical updates. Providing updates every year is likely to be found to be reasonable by a court unless there are some unique circumstances. By contrast, requesting monthly or bimonthly is likely to be found to be excessive.

3. Keep All Doctor Appointments.  A doctor’s appointment has a primary and secondary function.  The primary function is obviously to address and care for your medical condition. The secondary function is  to document (medically) the history of restrictions and limitations.  A claimant must be candid and forthcoming with treating doctors about how a condition is affecting one’s life.  Having a contemporaneous record of one’s health struggles will greatly assist in both the approval and continuation of a claim.

4. If You Can Work, Work. Many policies provide for partial or rehabilitative disability benefits. This means that if a claimant returns to work on a part-time basis, the insurer will make up the financial difference between the amount of the monthly disability benefit and the pay received from part-time employment.

5. Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Just Because Disability Insurers Lie, Never Stop Telling the Truth. Honesty is at the heart of any successful disability claim.  Honesty requires the truthful explanation of what limits a claimant’s ability to work. A claimant need not exaggerate any symptoms, but simply explain why a condition prevents performing the duties of a certain job.  For example, a cashier with a serious wrist injury can easily explain how that condition (loss of movement) prevents the regular performance of an essential job duty (counting back change).

These are but a few suggestions for taking a practical approach a disability claims and minimizing the adversity that exists between claimant and insurance company during the process.