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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 State Bar of Michigan has published an article authored by J.J. Conway, Esq. discussing the judicially mandated administrative claims process required by ERISA Section 503, 29 U.S.C. 1133.  The article, published in the Michigan Bar Journal, discusses ways that claimants may use the pretrial process more effectively. The article is entitled,”The Private Resolution of Employee Benefit Disputes: Section 503 and the Meaning of Evidentiary Materials in ERISA Cases”  (Sept. 2016). The article is available here.

J.J. Conway has been named a 2017 SuperLawyer by Thomson Reuters.  J.J. has been listed as SuperLawyer or SuperLawyer Rising Star on ten 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 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.

How would you describe your typical client?

Our clientele is quite diverse.  We represent as broad a range of clients as you can imagine. Since our litigation practice focuses on employee benefits — like disability insurance disputes – we serve people of all ages and backgrounds. Presently, we are handling the disability insurance claims of everyone from line-workers  to senior management of corporations. We represent managers, nurses, clerical support, and just about every occupation you can imagine. We also represent executives and professionals such lawyers, doctors, nurses, and college professors who have had health issues and problems with their disability insurance contracts.

Who is your success rate in disability insurance cases?

We enjoy a high percentage of cases resolved to our clients’ satisfaction. We want our clients satisfied. “Client satisfaction” is the standard by which we measure our success.  Sometimes this means achieving a courtroom victory. Sometimes, it means helping achieve a fair settlement.

Our success level is attributable to two primary factors.  First, our cases are directly affected by level of preparation devoted to them.  Most litigation cases do settle. The difference in settlement values is based on the level of preparation. The more preparation time spent on a case, the better the result.

The second factor is based on our singular focus on winning the case. We have heard successful college basketball coaches use an expression that pretty much sums up our litigation philosophy, we “hate losing more than we enjoy winning.” We have returned millions of dollars to our clients through judgments, verdict, and settlements. This was based on preparation, hard work, and a dedication and knowing the case inside and out.

Is there something to which you attribute your success?  Can you provide some examples?

First, we listen.  When we speak, we try to ask the right questions. Second, we are totally accessible to our clients thanks to the state of technology today. All email messages and telephone calls are returned in a day.  We try to educate our clients about the law, what it says, and what it means to their case.  We firmly believe that a client should never be in doubt as to where their case stands.  We insure this by emailing  copies of all documents filed or received in a given case.  We prepare regular email messages with updates on settlement talks. The clients receive their own copies of court rulings in their cases.

What may a client expect if you take the case?

In its most basic form, the legal relationship is a partnership. That is why I like that our firm’s motto is “conquer tomorrow.” We need to achieve our future desired result together.  We do ask that clients be involved in the process by supplying us with timely documentation and evidence gathering.  When the client is involved, the case tends to be more a more fulfilling experience.  We would never presume to know the facts better than our clients. Our clients will notice that we will be constantly rechecking or confirming of facts to make sure we have it right. . .every time.

Do most cases really settle?

Yes.  It is a reality in law that both sides typically want to control the outcome and not leave a major legal claim to chance.  The problem is we never know which cases will settle and which cases will not.  Take the case of DeLisle v. Sun Life.   In our view, Ms. DeLisle had an extremely strong claim against her insurer for ERISA disability benefits.  This insurance company, however, fought her claims before two different federal judges, losing before both judges.  The company then appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and having lost there, asked the entire Court of Appeals to overturn the case which it refused to do. In the process the insurance company hired two different huge law firms to fight this claim.  Delisle took seven seven years.  Who could have imagined this? And, yet in another case, the claim could be paid in 45 days.  The only way to firmly address this reality is prepare every case as if it is going to judgment. There is no substitute for this level of preparation.

Can individuals file administrative appeals on their own?

The short answer is ‘yes.’ The answer should be ‘no.’ While an individual may file his or her own ERISA or LTD appeal, they should be represented by legal counsel.  The reason is that, if a lawsuit is eventually filed, the lawsuit is about appeal.  The court case will focus on the contents of the appeal.  So, whether it is with our firm or another law firm, we believe an administrative appeal should be prepared by legal counsel.

What evidence is needed for a successful appeal?

The medical file is obviously the most important evidence. There is also other information, expert reports, vocational assessments, and the proper presentation of administrative agency decisions, such as Social Security.  The appeal should address, directly, the reasons the claim was denied in the first place.

What is the standard fee charged to your clients for their representation?  Is the fee the same for everyone?

Each case is customized based on the needs, goals, and objectives of the client. We are a people-centered firm which happens to practice law. That means we look at the situation the same way we would wish to be treated if we needed professional services.

Let’s break this down a bit further.

In the typical case, we are able to estimate what the damages might be.  A client who is unable to work because of their health may need to have the legal services rendered on a contingency-fee basis.  This is sometimes called the “no-win, no-fee” arrangement. In these cases, the firm is paid an agreed upon percentage of any financial recovery based a judgment, settlement, or the securing of a monthly benefit.On the other hand, a client who is able to afford the case on an hourly basis may look at the damages and see that paying by the hour is more suitable.   Either way, we strive to make it work for the client.

What distinguishes you from other law firms practicing in the area of disability insurance?

I think we bring a unique set of skills to a case that other firms may not possess.  First, my personal litigation background in law is rooted in complex commercial litigation and employment law. With this background training, I have been able to see the overlap among employment, employee benefits and contract law. I was trained in the commercial litigation context.  Given my background in employment law, I learned about the different occupational demands of positions in the workplace – often because the cases required a precise analysis of job duties. These three areas  come together in disability contract and ERISA disability cases.

What do you expect of your clients?

Two things in every case.  Honesty and patience.  We need to know everything, completely and honestly at the beginning.   We also need to ask for a bit of patience.  The legal process can be challenging, but in the end, if we keep pushing, we usually end up in the right place.

We have all been there at some point in our lives.  A promise is made.  A promise is broken.  We feel cheated, and maybe even a little hurt.  When you feel that you operate from a place of honesty, and others do not, the entire experience can be disillusioning.  In their simplest form, disability insurance contracts are promises.

In several years of assisting clients with their disability insurance claims, we have made a few observations.  Our clients are responsible. Our clients work hard.  They made choices about their financial future they believed were correct. They played by the rules.

It is not you. It is the insurers. Insurers change the rules.  It has almost become part of the insurance industry’s normal operating procedures. Often times, that is why an insurance company’s sales department is separated from its claims department. Promises made by one part of the organization may be more easily broken by another part of the company. Here, the law serves a purpose.  The law is here to hold insurers accountable.   Nothing more.   Nothing less, either.

Disability insurance cases involve two of the most emotional issues that many of us will ever face. Disability insurance cases involve the intersection of health and finances. Our firm understands this, and we approach these cases with this firmly in mind.

Below are a list of our firm’s guiding principles:

Total Investment.  Our approach is spend considerable time at the outset, getting to know our clients and the individual facts of their case.  While we are selective in the number and types of cases that we litigate at any one time, this is because once we sign on, we are fully invested.

Winning Your Case.  We strive win cases. We cannot guarantee legal outcomes, of course, because a host of different factors may affect a case’s outcome.  That fact does not change our focus.   We want to win on the quality of our written and public presentations.  We routinely face major corporate law firms with plenty of resources and armies of lawyers.  We want our presentations to win because we are on the right side of the issues and the law.  We are committed to submit quality presentations on behalf of our clients.  Every time.  No exceptions.

Individualized Service.  We strive to provide the individual level of client service that our clients have come to expect of us through the years. We are in constant communication with our clients.   We return all phone calls and email messages within one day. We are proud of our courtroom record, and we regularly review the hundreds of letters that we’ve received from satisfied clients to keep us focused on our commitment.  Most of these inspiring letters say the same thing — what was promised in the beginning is what was delivered at the end.  You should know, as our clients have attested, that once we sign on, there is no hand-wringing.  We are with you.  That is our commitment to you.

We look forward to serving you.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has cited the “spirit of ERISA” in reversing a district court decision granting summary judgment against an employee pursuing a disability claim.  In Waskiewicz v. Unicare Life & Health Ins. Co., 802 F.3d 851 (6th Cir. 2015) the plaintiff-employee was suffering from mental illness when she was discharged by her employer.  At the time of the discharge, Ms. Waskiewicz was insured through a long-term disability insurance plan established by her employer.   Ms. Waskiewicz did not timely file her claim, in part owing to her medical condition. The district court dismissed her claim, finding that she had failed to comply with her disability plan’s notice of claim requirements.

The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court finding that, given the claimant’s mental condition, the court’s reading of the language appearing in her disability contract was too strict.  The Court held:

While she did not comply with the notification deadlines outlined in Section 4.02 of the Plan, that failure is not surprising given that she was suffering from severe mental illness and was unable to comply due to the very disability for which she sought coverage.

An insurance policy can hardly be said to provide employee disability “insurance” at all if it protects against sudden disability but not if the employer immediately discharges the employee because of the disability before she gets a chance to apply for the benefits.  Waskiewicz, 802 F. 3d at 855-866 (emphasis in the original).

Notably, the Court held:

Common sense convinces us that the denial of benefits in this case runs contrary to the spirit of ERISA, which is designed to protect employee benefits, not subject them to arbitrary termination—in this case retroactive termination—after the benefit has otherwise accrued.  Id., 856.

The Court’s holding recognizes the unique role that an ERISA plan plays in the financial planning of employees. The Court’s recognition of the “spirit” of the ERISA law may require a court to consider the law’s intended purpose – the financial protection of employees through their employee benefits.  Occasionally, this may require a court to look past strict contractual interpretation and focus on the aims of ERISA.

J.J. Conway has been named a 2016 SuperLawyer by Thomson Reuters.  J.J. has been listed as SuperLawyer or SuperLawyer Rising Star on nine 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 benefits 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.

10 Practical Considerations for the Long Term Disability Claimant Considering a Lump Sum Settlement of an Insurance or ERISA Claim

A beloved client who suffered from a serious and debilitating illness finally seemed to get a break. After years of pursuing his claim, including time spent in active and aggressive opposition in a federal court, the defense offered to settle. The insurer agreed to pay the client a lump sum settlement in order to resolve the matter in exchange for a release of further liability. The client was relieved. The battle was ending, and there was financial relief on the way.

As with most settlements, there is a delay between an agreement to resolve a dispute and funds being received. Typically, the lag is a month, perhaps a bit longer. During this time, the client seemed anxious, but patient. He inquired frequently about the status of his check, but he was always patient, courteous, and appreciative. Finally, the big day arrived. The check was in. He let us know he would leave his house and be coming to the office right away. Driving was extremely difficult for him, if not inadvisable, but he was undeterred.

We met in the office, went over the formalities, and he collected a sizable check representing the entire settled value of his claim. We asked if he needed any assistance getting back home, or whether he was sure he could drive himself. He said we had nothing to worry about. He would not be going too far.

The next morning, there were several messages in my voicemail box. They were from a family member of the client, each with increasing urgency and anxiousness. I had a slightly sinking feeling. Before I could call back, the family member called again. He was exasperated. He told me that the client had taken the funds to a newly opened casino in Canada and spent every last penny of his settlement gambling. He revealed the client did not have the $2 dollar toll for the bridge to return to the U.S.  Now, the client was calling family and friends to pick him up and bring him back over the border. We never knew the client had a gambling problem.

Three words come to mind: shocking, true, and preventable. While admittedly this is an extreme example, it is instructive for our clients and for us when dealing with large sums of money that come from large disability settlements.  Here are ten practical considerations when thinking about whether to take a lump sum:

1.  Consideration hiring a legal expert to understand the release agreement.

A lump sum payment in a long term disability case will involve settlement paperwork. Settlement documents fully resolving a disability claim are critically important documents and must be carefully reviewed to insure that their terms are not overly broad or release other types of benefits not covered by the release. Often times, the settlement documents are prepared as general releases, meaning they extend to claims beyond the specific insurance contract.  These documents must be revised in order to ensure that the release is properly limited.

2.  Consider the income tax consequences of a large settlement.

Sometimes, a lump sum long term disability settlement will have no adverse income tax consequences.   Other times, there are potentially significant income tax consequences.  In such cases, there are steps that may be taken to lessen the tax burden. Consult an experienced professional to see exactly which steps may be taken to minimize the income tax implications of a large settlement. There are strict rules that must be followed to insure that a claimant may be able pay income taxes over time, rather than at the time of the lump sum.  Even a large tax liability may be made more manageable with proper settlement drafting and financial planning.

3.  Consider the hardship in the claims administration process.

Long term disability insurance companies have contracts or benefit plan provisions requiring a claimant to submit “continuing proof of loss” or “proof of continuing disability.” These “proofs” are likely standardized forms requiring a claimant to set forth the activities of daily living and also forms for completion by attending physicians. One of the advantages of a lump sum settlement of a large long term disability claim is that this process will come to an end.

4.   Consider your own financial tendencies and habits.

Prior to being placed on long term disability, consider whether you were  a spender, a saver, or somewhere in between.  The challenge with a large settlement or a lump sum buyout is that there is a significant amount of money which is easily accessible. Disability claimants who receive buyouts typically do not purchase new cars or homes. Their behavior may change in more subtle, yet expensive ways. For example, if a refrigerator breaks, rather than paying for a service call, a claimant may opt to purchase a brand new appliance. Over time, these changes in behavior can eat away at the proceeds. The key inquiry is whether a claimant can responsibly handle large funds in a disciplined way.

5.   Consider what would happen if somehow you lost it all.

A long term disability claimant receiving a monthly disability income replacement check has likely figured out a way to live off of that sum. A claimant has been living on a fixed income. The monthly disability checks are used to pay housing expenses, clothing, groceries, prescription and physician copays, and the like. With a lump sum settlement, those costs do not cease.  Instead, they must be paid from some other source such as the settlement funds, an annuity, divided income, or even some form of new employment.  Consider how you would live if the proceeds of the lump sum were used up entirely.  How would you pay your bills? Some claimants may be able to answer that they would attempt to work in a very sedentary capacity. Others might not be able to answer the question at all.  It is well worth considering.

6.   Consider how you will handle the settlement funds when they are received.

Before ever receiving a settlement check, a long term disability claimant should know how the settlement funds will be handled.  Will the settlement funds be immediately placed into a structured settlement like an annuity, or will they be invested with an investment firm, or will they simply be placed into a savings account of some type? These considerations should be made well before any large settlement is ever reached.

7.   Consider your response to “loan” requests from family members and friends.

A long term disability insurance claimant should be aware that even though they are addressing their own serious health issues and financial challenges, upon learning of a large settlement, others may actually approach the claimant seeking personal loans. This, too, can eat away at a large settlement. A good way to avoid this situation is to tell others that the resolution of the matter cannot be disclosed owing to confidentiality.

8.   Consider how your life would be different if the disability claim were resolved.

Long term disability is one of the most stressful events in all of life. It is the intersection of health and finance, and neither are working out well. Adding to the stress is the regular interactions with claims adjusters, insurers, and examiners.  One of the great advantages of a settlement is that this process will be removed from your life and you may be better able to focus on the future.

9.   Consider your current state of health.

A long term disability claimant should give consideration as to the cause of the disability. If claimant’s state of health is precarious, and there is a possibility that full amount of benefits may not be collected, this should be given due consideration. Conversely, if the disability claimant’s condition is chronic, but unlikely to be life-threatening, the issue of how many years of disability remain is an important consideration. A lump sum settlement may not be in the claimant’s best interests.

10.  Consider how the funds will be invested.

A claimant should give proper consideration how the a large settlement will be invested and by whom. A claimant’s receipt of a substantial sum of money tends to be followed by offers from financial advisors. A large settlement must last for several years, if not decades. A large settlement can appear much smaller when the number of years it covers is actually considered. Proper financial planning is key to having a successful resolution of a long term disability claim on a lump sum basis.

J.J. Conway has been named a 2015 SuperLawyer by Thomson Reuters.  J.J. has been listed as SuperLawyer or SuperLawyer Rising Star on eight 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 benefits matters. Based on Royal Oak, Michigan, the firm represents clients throughout the United States in ERISA and employee benefits matters.