ERISA Long-Term Disability Basics: Social Media and Disability Claims – Revisiting “An Online ‘Friend’ You May Not ‘Like’”
Stay off social media if you have a long-term disability claim.
We have written about this issue before. See, Long-Term Disability Insurance Update: An Online ‘Friend’ You May Not ‘Like.’
Perhaps one of the most overlooked features about ERISA disability claims is the fact that, since most jurisdictions generally restrict the ability of parties to conduct discovery, the fact gathering process is a little like the Wild West. Claimants gather their own evidence outside of the formal discovery rules used in federal court. Disability insurance companies gather their own evidence in this way as well.
Nearly every claim we review for our clients contains the insurer’s detailed social media investigation report – this is part of why disability claimants are being asked for their email addresses on claims forms. Disability insurers like Aetna, Unum, Reliance Standard, CIGNA, and Life Insurance Company of North America, as well as administrators like Sedgwick, are now reviewing social media activity as a part of their investigatory process.
Armed with an email address, the insurance company’s investigators can track Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps even dating sites. Exploiting the failure to activate privacy controls on publicly-viewable pages, these insurance companies can examine your life as told through your family and friend’s posted photographs and videos. Those images are downloaded or screen-captured and then put into the claims file – sometimes in a totally dishonest or misrepresentative arrangement.
For those accustomed to litigation under the Federal Rules, the fact that much of this stuff has not been authenticated is particularly galling. Nevertheless, it is usually admitted without so much as an objection when those administrative records are filed with a federal court.
Recently, a Nevada federal court put the brakes on the weight given to such social media posts in terminating a benefit claim. In Williamson v. Aetna, No. 2:17-cv-02653 (D. Nev. March 31, 2019), the disability insurer terminated a long-term disability claim based, exclusively, on its capture of social media posts (which it failed to independently verify) and an 11-minute surveillance video. The district court found that the insurer’s decision to base its determination on this type of non-medical evidence violated ERISA. Here the Court opined that it found
that Defendant abused its discretion when it terminated Plaintiff’s disability benefits absent medical evidence that her disabilities had improved. To the extent Defendant relied upon Plaintiff’s Facebook and dating website postings, the Court finds that such evidence is an illogical, implausible, and unreasonable basis for a revocation of disability benefits compared to the use of medical records. First, Defendant was aware of the inherent accuracy issues with such postings. Second, Defendant never sought to independently verify the posted information beyond the limited surveillance.
Notably, the district court zeroed in on the authentication issues without necessarily putting the case through an F.R.E. 901 formal analysis. The district court found that “Defendant possessed no external evidence of when or where the posted photographs were taken.” The district court continued that “the Defendant did not ask Plaintiff when those pictures were taken or seek additional context” or seek “to actually verify the explanations provided by Plaintiff.”
Critically, however, the district court did find “it was not an abuse of discretion for Defendant to use the information gleaned from Plaintiff’s social media accounts as a trigger to investigate Plaintiff’s ongoing disability status.” The district court held “that social media postings are minimally informative and inherently inaccurate as to a person’s medical symptoms and capacity for sustained employment. Such postings cannot plausibly constitute a basis for Defendant’s 2016 disability determination.”
Even though the district court narrowed in on the unreliability of social media evidence in disability cases, it still does not alter the bottom line: Stay off social media during a disability claim.