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Nearly all law firms offer a “free consultation.” An initial consultation without cost is like a free estimate to fix a household problem. While legal issues are considerably more complex than common household fixes, treating a “free consultation” like a “free estimate” may be useful. Just as with a common household problem, when it comes to legal issue, there must be some understanding of the nature of problem and the scope of the work desired.

For example, if you wanted to have a new driveway installed, you would contact a cement contractor.  When the contractor arrived, you wouldn’t digress into discussing irrelevant matters, like your dissatisfaction with a paint job performed on your house.  No. You would know exactly what you want (a new driveway or a repair); what you wish to pay for the service (your budget); and how your life may be impacted (i.e., how long will the existing driveway be torn up).  These are what we might call “the basics.”

Yet, somehow, when it comes to legal consultations, these basics can get lost.  There are a number of reasons for this – nervousness, immediate upset over something that has just happened, fear, anger.  It is usually coming from a place of emotion.  That said, time can go by quickly without ever nailing down the precise issue or issues.  Sometimes a potential client may feel like he or she has not been understood, and an attorney may get off the phone and not really understand the nature of the legal problem. Here are a few (hopefully) helpful tips to make the most of an initial consultation with J.J. Conway Law or any other law firm:

A fifteen to twenty minute initial consultation is the norm.

An initial consultation is usually conducted by phone and typically lasts about 15 to 20 minutes to determine the next steps – including a longer appointment.  It is somewhat standard practice to have the very first call handled by a non-lawyer.  This is to ensure that the law practice you’ve contacted is capable of handling the legal issue for which you require assistance.  For example, a long-term disability insurance case involves income replacement benefits as does workers compensation. Yet, these two areas of law are completely different, and most law firms do not handle both types of cases.  J.J. Conway Law would be able to assist with a long-term disability claim but has no expertise in the area of workers compensation – a client would need a recommendation for another firm for such a case.

Think about your legal issue before making the call.

You don’t need to know anything about the legal system or the legal process when you have an initial consultation, but you should have some idea of the nature of your legal claim.  Some matters are simple.  For example, it is pretty easy to understand when you have a homeowner’s insurance claim, or you have been ticketed for speeding.  Other matters, such as those handled by our practice, are more complicated.  For example, you may have experienced an unexplained shortfall in your 401(k) account.  Or, you may have stopped working because you had back surgery and really want to know what legal entitlement you may have to income replacement benefits – like a long-term disability claim.  By being able to name your legal issue quickly, you will facilitate a good initial call.

Think about writing out three to four main questions.

Writing out a few questions before having a consultation can also be helpful. Using the long-term disability benefits claim as an example, you may want to write out a few questions before the call and place a check mark or short note next to each one as you have them answered. You may wish to know, generally, how does a long-term disability case work? What are the legal fee charges for a disability case?  Are there any other costs besides the legal fee charges? What is the timeframe for resolving a disability case?  These are just a few common inquiries.

Yield the floor.

Given the time constraints for an initial call, if a lawyer interjects, and asks you specific questions, that should be a sign that there are relevant facts yet to be discussed. Since we often tell our stories in chronological order, there is an impulse to say, “I’m getting to that” or “I explain that in a minute.”  This is natural, but they may result in an important aspect of the case being missed.  Assuming the lawyer is politely interjecting, you should consider answering the precise question.

You may not receive an answer that you like, but it might be the likely answer.

Sometimes, even a powerful story can have an unpleasant legal reality – like a statute of limitations.  A Michigan Whistleblower Employer Claim has a notoriously short statute of limitations – 90 days.  If during the call, you indicate that you were fired six months before the call, an attorney may explain that the case is unable to be filed because of a time-limit. That may be an answer that is unsatisfying, but the lawyer may also be saving you considerable time and expense being up front.

You are not a client until you sign a representation agreement.

Most consultations are like the earlier example of getting an estimate.  You don’t hire the contractor until you agree to the work.  The same is true for legal services.  A law firm’s representation will typically not begin until there is a signed agreement.

Call around.

You may wish to call two or three different law practices to get a feel for the legal issue and to evaluate whether lawyers are seeing the same issue the same way.

J.J. Conway has been named a 2018 SuperLawyer by Thomson Reuters.  J.J. has been listed as SuperLawyer or SuperLawyer Rising Star on eleven occasions. SuperLawyers is a “rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high degree of peer-recognition and professional achievement.” The selection process “includes independent research, peer nominations, and peer evaluations.” www.superlawyers.com.

For more information and to view J.J.’s Superlawyer profile, please visit:
J.J. Conway’s SuperLawyer Profile.

J.J. Conway Law is an employee benefits law firm representing clients in the matters involving ERISA, pension, long-term disability insurance, healthcare, life insurance, as well as other benefit matters. Based on Royal Oak, Michigan, the firm represents clients throughout the United States in ERISA and employee benefits matters, including complex benefit class action cases.

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

One of the more notable observations of the responsibility of plan administrators to provide full and fair reviews consistent with 29 U.S.C. § 1133 appeared two decades ago in Univ. Hosps. of Cleveland v. Emerson Elec. Co., 202 F.3d 839, 848 n. 7 (6th Cir. 2000).  There, Judge Gerald Rosen, former chief U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, sitting by designation, resolved a provider-plan dispute under ERISA, holding:

[I]t strikes us as problematic to, on one hand, recognize an administrator’s discretion to interpret a plan by applying a deferential “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review, yet, on the other hand, allow the administrator to “shore up” a decision after-the-fact by testifying as to the “true” basis for the decision after the matter is in litigation, possible deficiencies in the decision are identified, and an attorney is consulted to defend the decision by developing creative post hoc arguments that can survive deferential review. The concerns inherent in this scenario are even more pronounced where, as here, the administrator has a financial incentive to deny benefits.  Id.

Seventeen years later, the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed this notion in Corey v. Sedgwick Claims Mgt. Services, Inc., 858 F.3d 1024, 1028 (6th Cir. 2017).  The Court held:

The Administrator’s response leans heavily on the plan’s grant of interpretive discretion. But the record leaves us guessing as to how the Administrator interpreted the plan’s objective-findings definition. The Administrator’s denial letters simply quote the plan language and then conclude Corey’s evidence fails to suffice. Although the Administrator enjoys interpretive latitude, we defer only to its actual interpretations—it can’t issue a conclusory denial and then rely on an attorney to craft a post-hoc explanation. Id. (citing Univ. Hosps. of Cleveland v. Emerson Elec. Co., 202 F.3d 839, 848 n.7 (6th Cir. 2000)).

These cases advance the notion that although ERISA cases still function as adversarial proceedings, claims under the statute are required to be evaluated differently than most other disputes.  The plan’s administrators are fiduciaries, tasked with fiduciary standards of conduct, not partisan advocates.  These rulings do not mean that a claimant seeking benefits must win, far from it.  They do require, however, that ERISA participants must, by law, be given a fair shot at presenting their claims.  Evaluation of their claims must not be outcome-determinative or results-oriented. Courts continue to frown upon denials which are the product of lawyerly arguments rather than the type of independent decision-making ERISA requires.

Insurance companies administering ERISA long-term disability claims may be facing new rules.  In 2012 the U.S. Department of Labor’s ERISA Advisory Council undertook a study on issues relating to managing disability claims in the ERISA administrative review context. The Advisory Council recommended that the USDOL review the current claims regulation and recommend specific updates and modifications.

After taking comments, the final rule was published on December 19, 2016, and is set to take effect January 1, 2018.[1]  One of the main aims of the final rule is to “alleviate the financial and emotional hardship suffered by many individuals when they are unable to work after becoming disabled and their claims are denied.”[2]

The main “Claims Regulation” under which ERISA disability claims have been administered and adjudicated since 2002 – 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1 – will be revised and updated to include the following:

1. Conflicts of Interest are to be Avoided.

Claims and appeals are to be adjudicated in a manner designed to ensure the independence and impartiality of the persons involved in making the benefit determination. Decisions regarding hiring, compensation, termination, promotion, or other similar matters are not be based upon the likelihood that the individual will support the denial of benefits.

2. The Disclosure Requirements are Expanded.

Under the final rule, benefit denial notices must contain a complete discussion of why the plan denied the claim and the standards applied in reaching the decision.  This includes the basis for disagreeing with the views of the claimant’s health care professionals, vocational professionals or with disability determinations made by the Social Security Administration.

Plans can no longer disagree with a treating health care professional “merely by stating that the plan or a reviewing physician disagrees with the treating physician….”[3]  The final rule requires that the adverse benefit determination include a discussion of the basis for disagreeing with the health care professional’s views.

The same standard also applies to a denial which disagrees with a Social Security Administration finding of disability. Disagreement with the determination must be accompanied by “more detailed justification….”[4]  The final rule also requires an administrator to notify a claimant of an alleged deficiency in the record and provide an opportunity to supplement the record, particularly if the administrator is not in possession of an applicable Social Security Administration ruling.

3. Timely Disclosure of New Evidence and Rationale Supporting a Denial Must Be Produced

Under the final rule, claimants must be given timely notice of their right to access their entire claim file, as well as other relevant documents, and be guaranteed the right to present evidence and testimony in support of their claim during the review process.  The Department took the position that claimants

have a right to review and respond to new evidence or rationales developed by the plan during the pendency of the appeal and to fully and fairly present their case at the administrative appeal level, as opposed to merely having a right to review such information on request only after the claim has already been denied on appeal.[5]

Any evidence or rationale provided must be turned over as soon as possible, and sufficiently in advance of the date on which the notice of adverse benefit determination on review is required to be provided, to allow the claimant a reasonable opportunity to respond to the new evidence.  Rather than viewing this as a ‘new’ requirement, the DOL took the position that it simply hones the prior requirements under 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1 to clarify exactly what, and when, information should be provided to claimants.

4. Deemed Exhaustion of Claims and Appeals Processes

Under the final rule, plans cannot prohibit a claimant from seeking judicial review of a claim denial based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the plan if the plan failed to comply with the claims procedure requirements.  A “minor error” is the only exception to this new provision, although the DOL noted that this standard is “stricter than a mere ‘substantial compliance’ requirement.”[6]

5. Amending the Definition of “Adverse Benefit Determination”

Under the final rule, certain rescissions of coverage are to be treated as “adverse benefit determinations” triggering the plan’s appeals procedures. For plans providing disability benefits, a rescission of coverage that has a retroactive effect now constitutes an adverse benefit determination.  Under the USDOL’s analysis, if a plan provides for the payment of disability benefits for a pre-determined, fixed period, the termination of benefits at the end of the specified period would not constitute an adverse benefit determination under the regulation, but rather a new claim.

6. The Applicable Statute of Limitations Must Be Disclosed

Under the final rule, the USDOL specified that it:

does not believe that a claims procedure would satisfy the statutory requirement if the plan included a contractual limitations period that expired before the review was concluded… A limitations period that expires before the conclusion of the plan’s internal appeals process on its face violates ERISA section 503’s requirement of a full and fair review process.  A process that effectively requires the claimant to forego the right to judicial review and thereby insulates the administrator from impartial judicial review falls far short of the statutory fairness standard and undermines the claims administrator’s incentives to decide claims correctly.[7]

The USDOL seems to suggest that any limitation time-period shorter than a year after the final claims decision does not allow a reasonable period after the conclusion of the appeal in which to bring a lawsuit and is accordingly unenforceable.  Additionally, “in addition to such traditional remedies, plans that offer appeals or dispute resolution beyond what is contemplated in the claims procedure regulations must agree to toll the limitations provision during that time.”[8]

 

[1] See Claims Procedure for Plans Providing Disability Benefits, 81 Fed. Reg. 92316 (December 19, 2016).

[2] Id. at 92317.

[3] Id. at 92321.

[4] Id. at 92322.

[5] Id. at 92324.

[6] Failure to comply constitutes a “minor error” if the violation was (1) de minimis, (2) non-prejudicial, (3) attributable to good cause or matters beyond the plan’s control, (4) in the context of an ongoing good-faith exchange of information, or (5) not reflective of a pattern or practice of non-compliance.  Id. at 92327.

[7] Id. at 92330.

[8] Id. at 92331.

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.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has held that an insurer must advise a long-term disability claimant of its internal appeal requirement within the actual plan document in order to establish a failure to exhaust defense.

In Wallace v. Beaumont Healthcare Employee Welfare Benefit Plan, No. 16-cv-10625 (E.D. Mich. January 18, 2017), Reliance-Standard Life Insurance Company moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint on the basis that she failed to exhaust her internal administrative remedies prior to filing suit.  The court denied the motion, holding, in part, that Reliance Standard had not included an appeal requirement within the express terms of its disability insurance contract. A statement advising of a right to appeal a denied claim in a letter is insufficient to secure a dismissal, according to the court. The court cited the opinion of another federal court in Montoya v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., No. 14-cv-02740 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 2, 2015) which also found Reliance Standard’s long-term disability form contract lacking any requirement of an internal appeal. The Wallace court held:

Having reviewed the Reliance policy, which Plaintiff attached to her Amended Complaint, this Court finds no discussion of an exhaustion requirement. The only requirement for bringing a legal action set forth in the policy reads: “No legal action may be brought against us to recover on this Policy within sixty (60) days after written proof of loss has been given as required by this Policy.” The policy does not incorporate the terms of any other document. To the contrary, it expressly states that the policy represents “the entire contract.” Nevertheless, even if this Court construed the denial of benefits letter as a plan document, it would hold that the letter did not mandate exhaustion as a prerequisite to bringing suit.

 

The court’s ruling in Wallace underscores the importance of carefully reviewing a claimant’s long-term disability contract for a disability insurer’s own compliance with ERISA when an exhaustion defense is raised.  The court’s ruling also increases access to disabled employees whose claims for disability benefits have been wrongfully denied or terminated.