A Medley of Interesting Disability Cases: Reviewing 2013 Cases

Another year has passed, and what better way to celebrate than by taking a look at the various interesting disability cases that have been issued during that time. This year they are collected in the Medley.

In this booklet I have summarized a couple of dozen individual and group disability opinions that were issued by both state and federal courts primarily over the 2013 calendar year. As is the case with each of my yearly collections, the cases included are meant to be illustrative of how judges resolve various issues, but those cases are not necessarily the only recent cases pertinent to each issue discussed. I have included both DI and LTD cases, with a focus on substantive over procedural issues (though both are included).

The format of this year’s Medley is the same as that of past collections: I have summarized the pertinent facts of each case and set forth how the court ruled on certain of the issues raised. At the conclusion of each case summary, I have provided my personal thoughts in a “Lessons Learned” section.

For those keeping track, this sixth booklet is the latest in a series that includes: (1) the Potpourri (2008 cases); (2) the Cornucopia (2009 cases); (3) the Smorgasbord (2010 cases); (4) the Cavalcade (2011 cases); and (5) the Ensemble (2012 cases). I am hopeful that collectively they provide a gestalt-ish “feel” for how courts seem to be resolving the issues that we all face. I am also hopeful that these summaries provide helpful guidance to those in the industry, whether they be making the initial decisions (the examiners and others working for disability carriers and third party administrators), giving legal advice about those decisions (in house counsel), defending those decisions (outside counsel), or performing other functions. We can all learn from the experience of the litigants whose disputes were resolved in these cases.

I would like to thank very much Natalie Ferrall, who gave significant time and great insight in assisting me with this publication.

If you would like a copy of this year's publication, or any prior year, please email me here.

 

Court favors plain and ordinary meaning of policy terms when insured claims policy language is ambiguous

Two of Barger & Wolen's lawyers -- Martin Rosen and Ophir Johna -- received a victory from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal earlier this week in Glassman v. Crown Life Ins. Co., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 21312 (9th Cir. 2013). 

In Glassman, the plaintiff insured sued his disability insurer, Crown Life, claiming that while Crown Life had been paying his disability claim for well over two decades, it had failed to increase his benefits each year due to a cost of living adjustment rider that he had purchased with the policy. With well over 20 years of purported policy benefit increases at issue, the amount at stake exceeded $1.5 million.

Crown Life brought a motion to dismiss the action based on both policy interpretation and statute of limitation grounds. 

Although the United States District Court for the Central District of California (Judge Steven V. Wilson) permitted the insured to conduct discovery, the court eventually granted Crown Life's motion to dismiss. 

It ruled (as Crown Life had argued) that the language of the rider served to increase a potential residual disability benefit, but did not increase the amount of total disability benefits payable in any month. The insured appealed the district court's ruling. 

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit sided with Crown Life and affirmed the district court's ruling, finding that "The language of the Rider unambiguously applies only to partial or 'residual' disability benefits, rather than total disability benefits." Id. at *1-2.

The opinion, while unpublished, is a reminder to insureds and their lawyers that simply contending that policy language is ambiguous does not make it so, and that courts will construe policy language in its plain and ordinary meaning.

To listen to the Ninth Circuit arguments, click here.

Program for Definitive Disability Conference Set!

If you are serious about either DI or LTD litigation or claims operations, the inaugural Definitive Disability Conference is for you!

The conference's agenda, program and speakers are all set. The full program and agenda can be found here, but our speakers include:

  • David A. Barron, Associate General Counsel, Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company
  • Bryan D. Bolton, Founding Member, Funk & Bolton, P.A.
  • Andrew J. Cohen, Secretary & General Counsel, Disability Management Services, Inc.
  • J. Christopher Collins, Senior Vice President & General Counsel, Unum US
  • William Demlong, Shareholder, Kunz, Plitt, Hyland & Demlong PC
  • Anne J. Farina, AVP & Senior Counsel, Sun Life Financial
  • Robert E. Hess, Partner, Barger & Wolen LLP
  • Annie Hong, Senior Operations Representative, Life Insurance Company of North America
  • Jeffrey Krivis, Mediator, First Mediation Corporation
  • John M. Lucas, Vice President & Associate General Counsel, Disability Income & Claims, Ameritas Life Insurance Corp.
  • Jacqueline Mallon, Assistant Vice President of Complex Operations Risk Management, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
  • John E. Meagher, Partner, Shutts & Bowen LLP
  • Misty A. Murray, Of Counsel, Barger & Wolen LLP
  • Mark K. Ostrowski, Partner, Shipman & Goodwin LLP
  • Cheryl D. Provost, Director, Disability Claims, Business Process Services, CSC Financial Services Group
  • Stephen J. Prunier, Second Vice President & Counsel, Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America
  • Martin E. Rosen, Partner, Barger & Wolen LLP
  • Mark E. Schmidtke, Shareholder, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
  • Ernest Patrick Smith, Partner, Nawrocki Smith LLP
  • Ronda S. Tranter, Assistant Vice President & Senior Counsel, Colonial Life Insurance Company

Early Bird Registration for Definitive Disability Conference Expire on 1/31/2013

Early bird registration discounts for the inaugural Definitive Disability Conference are set to expire on January 31, 2013. Fax or e-mail your registration form in today to lock in your discounted rates. 

About the Definitive Disability Conference (DDC)

On May 16-17, 2013, Barger & Wolen will host the inaugural Definitive Disability Conference in Boston, an industry conference designed for in-house counsel and experienced claim personnel. The conference will be chaired by Martin Rosen, who heads Barger & Wolen’s Disability, Life and Health practice group.

The primary objectives for the Definitive Disability Conference are: (1) to create a conference focused solely on disability insurance issues; (2) to design the conference with the experienced disability insurance professional in mind; (3) to limit the conference to industry-related personnel and their counsel; and (4) to ensure that the conference provides great value for the price.

To accomplish these goals, Marty has secured speakers from the following companies, law firms and other entities:

  • Ameritas
  • Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America
  • Cigna
  • Colonial Life Insurance Company
  • CSC Financial Services Group
  • Disability Management Services, Inc.
  • First Mediation Corporation
  • Funk & Bolton, P.A.
  • Kunz, Plitt, Hyland & Demlong PC
  • Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
  • Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company
  • Nawrocki Smith LLP
  • Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
  • Shipman & Goodwin LLP
  • Shutts & Bowen LLP
  • Sun Life Financial
  • Unum Group

We are very excited about the inaugural conference and look forward to seeing you in Boston next spring.

For more information, please click on the following hyperlinks:

Ÿ         Definitive Disability Conference

Ÿ         Conference Program and Agenda

Ÿ         Speakers

Ÿ         Sponsorship Opportunities

Ÿ         Fees

Ÿ         Registration Form

Ÿ         Hotel

Ÿ         FAQs

Barger & Wolen Launches Disability Insurance Industry Conference

We at Barger & Wolen have exciting news to share with you.

On May 16-17, 2013, we will host the inaugural Definitive Disability Conference in Boston, an industry conference designed for in-house counsel and experienced claim personnel. The conference will be chaired by Martin Rosen, who heads Barger & Wolen’s Disability, Life and Health practice group.

The primary objectives for the Definitive Disability Conference are: (1) to create a conference focused solely on disability insurance issues; (2) to design the conference with the experienced disability insurance professional in mind; (3) to limit the conference to industry-related personnel and their counsel; and (4) to ensure that the conference provides great value for the price.

To accomplish these goals, Marty has secured speakers from the following companies, law firms and other entities:

  • Ameritas
  • Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America
  • Cigna
  • Colonial Life Insurance Company
  • CSC Financial Services Group
  • Disability Management Services, Inc.
  • First Mediation Corporation
  • Funk & Bolton, P.A.
  • Kunz, Plitt, Hyland & Demlong PC
  • Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
  • Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company
  • Nawrocki Smith LLP
  • Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
  • Shipman & Goodwin LLP
  • Shutts & Bowen LLP
  • Sun Life Financial
  • Unum Group

We are very excited about the inaugural conference and look forward to seeing you in Boston next spring.

For more information, please click on the following hyperlinks:

Ÿ         Definitive Disability Conference

Ÿ         Conference Program and Agenda

Ÿ         Speakers

Ÿ         Sponsorship Opportunities

Ÿ         Fees

Ÿ         Registration Form

Ÿ         Hotel

Ÿ         FAQs

 

More than 20 new insurance-related bills signed into law by Governor Brown

By Sam Sorich

September 30, 2012, was the deadline for Governor Jerry Brown to take action on bills passed by the California Legislature during the 2012 regular legislative session.

Here are summaries of noteworthy insurance-related bills that were signed into law. All of these new laws will go into effect on January 1, 2013.

Senate Bills

SB 863 increases workers’ compensation permanent disability benefits by an estimated $750 million per year, phased in over a two-year period. The new law changes several aspects of the workers’ compensation system. Among other things, SB 863 creates an independent medical review process for resolving medical care disputes, establishes an independent bill review process for resolving medical billing disagreements, adopts a statute of limitations for workers’ compensation liens, and restricts the reasons that can be used to avoid obtaining treatment within a medical provider network.

SB 1216 conforms California law to the revisions made to the NAIC Credit for Reinsurance Model Law (adopted in 2011). Among other things, SB 1216 establishes criteria that the insurance commissioner is to use in certifying reinsurers; reinsurance provided by certified reinsurers qualifies as an asset or credit against the liabilities of a ceding insurer.

SB 1234 and SB 923 create the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Investment Board which is charged with conducting a market analysis to determine if the necessary conditions for implementation can be met and then report to the Legislature as to whether a statewide retirement savings plan for private employees, who do not participate in any other type of employer-sponsored retirement savings plan, should be created. The Board’s analysis would have to be paid for by funds made available through a non-profit or private entity, federal funding, or an annual Budget Act appropriation.

SB 1298 establishes conditions for the operation of autonomous vehicles on public roadways for testing purposes. The bill defines “autonomous vehicle” as a vehicle equipped with technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.

SB 1448 conforms California law to the revision to the NAIC Insurance Holding Company System Regulatory Model Act (adopted in 2010). Among other things, SB 1448 requires the board of directors of an insurer, which is part of a holding company system, to file a statement affirming that the board is responsible for overseeing corporate governance and internal controls. In addition, SB 1448 authorizes the insurance commissioner to evaluate the enterprise risk related to an insurer that is part of a holding company.

SB 1449 permits the approval of life insurance and annuity products that include the waiver of premium during periods of disability and the waiver of surrender charges if the insured encounters specified medical conditions, disability, or unemployment.

SB 1513 expands the investment options available to the State Compensation Insurance Fund.

Assembly Bills

AB 53 requires each admitted insurer with written California premiums of $100 million or more to submit a report to the insurance commissioner on its minority, women, and disabled veteran-owned business procurement efforts. The first report is due July 1, 2013. An insurer is required to update its report biennially. AB 53 includes a January 1, 2019 sunset date.

AB 999 revises the standards used by the insurance commissioner to approve the rates for long-term care insurance. AB 999 prohibits an insurer from using asset investment yield changes to justify a rate increase for long-term care policies unless the insurer can demonstrate that its return on investments is lower than the maximum valuation interest rate for contract reserves for those policies; or the insurance commissioner determines that a change in interest rates is justified due to changes in laws or regulations that are retroactively applicable to long-term care insurance previously sold in California. AB 999 requires all of the experience on all similar long-term care policy forms issued by an insurer and its affiliates and retained within the affiliated group to be pooled together and used as the basis for determining whether a rate increase is reasonable.

AB 1631 removes the January 1, 2013, repeal date for the existing law which permits a person admitted to the bar of another state to represent a party in a California arbitration proceeding.

AB 1708 authorizes auto insurers to provide proof of insurance coverage in an electronic format that may be displayed on a mobile electronic device. Proof of insurance in this format is allowed to be presented to a peace officer.

AB 1747 requires every life insurance policy to include a provision for a grace period of not less than 60 days from the premium due date; the provision must state that the policy remains in force during the grace period. AB 1747 requires an insurer to provide an applicant for an individual life insurance policy an opportunity to designate at least one person, in addition to the applicant, to receive notice of lapse or termination of a policy for nonpayment of premium. AB 1747 provides that a notice of pending lapse or termination of a life insurance policy is not effective unless the notice is mailed by the insurer to the named policy owner, a designee for an individual life insurance policy, and a known assignee or other person having an interest in the individual life insurance policy, at least 30 days prior to the effective date of policy termination if termination is for nonpayment of premium.

AB 1875 limits the civil deposition of any person to one day of seven hours. The bill specifies exceptions to this limit.

AB 1888 allows a person who has a commercial driver’s license to attend a traffic violator school for a traffic offense while operating a passenger car, a light duty truck, or a motorcycle.  Attendance at the school prevents the offense from being counted as a point for determining whether the driver is presumed to be a negligent operator who is subject to license revocation. However, attendance at the school does not bar the disclosure of the offense to insurers for underwriting or rating purposes.

AB 2084 establishes new permitted types of blanket insurance policies and expands the list of eligible policyholders who can purchase blanket insurance.  

AB 2138 gives the insurance commissioner the authority to require every admitted disability insurer, and every other entity liable for any loss due to health insurance fraud, to pay an annual maximum fee of 20 cents for each insured under an individual or group insurance policy it issues in California. The fee is to be used to fund increased investigation and prosecution of fraudulent disability insurance claims. Under current law, the maximum fee is 10 cents. AB 2138 allows an insurer to recoup the fee through a surcharge on premiums or by including the fee in the insurer’s rates.

AB 2160 requires the California insurance commissioner to treat a domestic insurer’s investment in a company that has business operations in Iran as a non-admitted asset. We recently blogged on the passage of AB 2160 here.

AB 2219 removes the January 1, 2013, repeal date for the existing law which requires a contractor with a C-39 roofing classification to obtain and maintain workers’ compensation insurance even if he or she has no employees. AB 2219 also removes the January 1, 2013, repeal date for the existing law which requires an insurer that issues a workers’ compensation insurance policy to a roofing contractor, who holds a C-39 license, to perform an annual payroll audit for the contractor. AB 2219 adds the requirement that the insurer’s audit must include an in-person visit to the place of business of the roofing contractor to verify whether the number of employees reported by the contractor is accurate.     

AB 2298 prohibits an insurer that issues or renews a private passenger auto insurance policy to a peace officer or a firefighter from increasing the premium for the policy because the peace officer or firefighter was involved in an accident while operating his or her private passenger auto in the performance of his or her duty at the request or direction of his or her employer. AB 2298 provides that in the event of a loss or injury that occurs as a result of an accident during any time period when the private passenger auto is operated by the peace officer or firefighter and is used by him or her at the request or direction of the employer in the performance of the employee’s duty, the auto’s owner shall have no liability.

AB 2301 modifies the definition of “covered claims” in the Insurance Code article relating to the California Insurance Guarantee Association (CIGA) to make clear that a covered claim is one which is presented to the liquidator in the state of domicile of the insolvent insurer or to CIGA.  

AB 2303 is the Department of Insurance’s omnibus bill which addresses a variety of matters, including applications for non-resident surplus lines broker licenses, pre-licensing requirements for bail agents, the creation of a limited lines license for crop insurance adjusters, and changes to the conservation and liquidation process. AB 2303 abolishes the advisory committee on automobile insurance fraud within the Fraud Division of the Department of Insurance. AB 2303 also repeals the provision that excludes policies that have been effect less than 60 days from the statute which governs the cancellation of private passenger auto insurance policies.

AB 2354 revises the licensing requirements for travel insurance agents.

AB 2406 requires the Department of Insurance to publish on the Department’s website all requests by a person or group representing the interests of consumers for compensation relating to intervention in a proceeding on an insurer rate filing or participation in other proceedings. Findings on such requests also must be published on the website.

Originally posted to Barger & Wolen's Insurance Litigation & Regulatory Law Blog.

"Dismemberment by Severance" v. Loss of Use: A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disability Cases

Fier v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of America, 629 F.3d 1095 (9th Cir. 2011)

Facts and holding: In 1992, Robert Fier (“Fier”) was shot in the neck and rendered permanently quadriplegic. He filed a claim for benefits with Unum Life Insurance Company of America (“Unum”) under his ERISA-governed Accidental Death and Dismemberment Insurance Policy (“AD&D policy”).

UNUM denied Fier’s claim because the AD&D policy defined loss of hands or feet as “dismemberment by severance at or above the wrist or ankle joint” and, although Fier was a quadriplegic, his limbs were still physically attached to his body.

Fier filed suit in District Court asserting a claim for declaratory relief that he was entitled to benefits under the AD&D policy, among other claims. The District Court held that Fier was ineligible to receive benefits under the AD&D policy because his limbs were not physically severed from his body. Fier appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that although his limbs remained physically attached to his body, he had no functional use of them due to the “severance” of his spinal cord.

As a matter of first impression, the Ninth Circuit construed the policy’s terms in their “ordinary and popular sense” and concluded that the phrase “dismemberment by severance” is unambiguous and required “actual, physical separation.” (The same result was reached by the Second Circuit in Cunninghame v. Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, 652 F.2d 306, 307 (2d Cir. 1981).) Accordingly, Unum did not owe Fier benefits under the AD&D policy.

Lessons Learned: Although a reasonable interpretation of the intent of the policy might be to award benefits to an insured who has completely and permanently lost all use of his limbs, courts will not rewrite the terms of a policy if they are clear and unambiguous.

Note that when disability policies provide total disability benefits for presumptive loss of both hands or legs, and the policy does not specifically require severance of the limbs, courts often view the requirement as being satisfied by the functional loss of use of the limbs. See generally Couch on Insurance 3d, Chapter 146:58 (1998).

 

From A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disability Cases.

A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disablity Cases: Accidental Bodily Injury

Boly v. The Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 238 Ore. App. 702 (2010)

Facts and holding: In the late 1980s, Jeffrey Boly (“Boly”) was diagnosed with sleep apnea and narcolepsy. With treatment, doctors were able to stabilize Boly’s nighttime sleeping, but Boly’s daytime tiredness persisted and interfered with his ability to perform his job duties. As a result, Boly applied for and received partial disability benefits from his insurer, The Paul Revere Life Insurance Company (“Paul Revere”). 

Thereafter, Boly began to experience cognitive impairment. He was evaluated by a neuropsychologist who determined that Boly’s cognitive impairment likely resulted from chronic, nocturnal hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) associated with sleep apnea that occurred prior to the diagnosis and treatment of Boly’s sleep apnea.

In 2006, the year before Boly’s 65th birthday, Boly requested that Paul Revere reclassify his disability as resulting from “injury” rather than from “sickness.” (Under the terms of Boly’s policy, disability benefits were available until age 65 if the disabling condition resulted from “sickness,” but for life if it resulted from “injury.”) The policy defined “injury” as “accidental bodily injury,” but did not define the term “accidental.” During its consideration of Boly’s request, Paul Revere had its doctors examine Boly’s medical records and, like Boly’s physicians, concluded that Boly’s cognitive impairment resulted from sleep apnea and narcolepsy. Based on this finding, Paul Revere denied Boly’s request and discontinued his benefits on his 65th birthday.

Boly brought suit against Paul Revere seeking reinstatement of his disability benefits and a declaration that he was entitled to lifetime benefits. Paul Revere moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Boly’s disability resulted from a sickness — sleep apnea. Boly argued that his brain injury was an accidental injury

because it was an unintended result of an external event – either his failure to breathe during episodes of sleep apnea or his physician’s failure to diagnose his sleep apnea.

The trial court granted Paul Revere’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that Boly’s nocturnal hypoxia was the consequence of his sleep apnea (a sickness). The Court of Appeal affirmed. Since Boly’s policy did not provide a definition for “accidental bodily injury,” the meaning of the term depended on the “understanding of the ordinary purchaser of insurance.” Applying that standard, the Court rejected Boly’s argument that every unintentional result is accidental as long as it is caused by external events or forces. And the Court was right. Otherwise, every heart attack that could be traced to high cholesterol and every case of lung cancer that could be traced to smoking would also be considered “accidental injuries.”

The Court held that Boly’s failure to breathe and his undiagnosed sleep apnea where not “forces” or “events” in the same sense as lightening (as in being struck) or gravity (as in falling). The typical purchaser of insurance would regard Boly’s condition as analogous to organ failure or damage that resulted from disease. Such disabilities do not arise from “accidental bodily injury.” Therefore, Boly’s brain damage was not “accidental.” 

Lessons LearnedBoly’s position was that his hypoxia should be considered an “accidental bodily injury” because it was the unintended result of his sleep apnea. While an unintended result is one factor many courts consider in determining whether a disabling condition is an “accident,” the condition must also not be the result of a naturally occurring process, such as cancer, aging, medical disorders, etc. See, e.g., Khatchatrian v. Continental Casualty Co., 332 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. [Cal] 2003) (death from stroke not “accidental” because death was caused by natural, rather than external causes).

For a related case in which a heart attack at rest was considered not to be accidental, see Evans v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co., 2008 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2572 (2008) (in which the author prevailed).

From A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disability Cases.

 

A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disablity Cases: Accident v. Sickness

Kerns v. The Northwestern Mutual Life Ins. Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126769 (E.D. Cal. 2010) 

Facts and holding: Gary Kerns (“Kerns”) owned two disability policies with The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (“Northwestern Mutual”). Under the terms of both policies, total disability benefits were payable to Kerns for the duration of his life if he became disabled due to accidental bodily injury, but only until age 65 if he became disabled due to sickness.

On October 3, 2006, Kerns submitted a claim for total disability benefits to Northwestern Mutual. He asserted that he had become disabled from his occupation as an insurance agent in February 2006 due to neck and head pain. Kerns claimed that his disability was due to “accident” from two sporting incidents which occurred in 1987 and 2001.

Northwestern Mutual rejected Kerns’ claim that his disability resulted from the 1987 and 2001 incidents (accidents) and determined that Kerns was totally disabled from degenerative arthritis of the spine (a sickness). Northwestern Mutual approved Kerns’ claim on that basis and paid Kerns monthly disability benefits consistent with the policy’s terms governing disability due to “sickness.”

In reaching its determination that Kerns’ disability was the result of sickness, Northwestern Mutual relied on the opinion of its medical consultant that Kerns had progressive degenerative arthritis, which was asymptomatic until 2006, and that neither the 1987 nor the 2001 incidents accelerated his condition. Northwestern Mutual also relied on Kerns’ medical records, which reflected that following the 2001 incident, Kerns underwent a CT scan and x-ray, the results of both of which were normal. Further, the medical records from 2000 did not reference any complaints of headache or cervical issues.

Kerns disagreed and brought suit against Northwestern Mutual for breach of contract and a declaration that he was entitled to lifetime benefits because his disability was due to “accident,” rather than “sickness.”

In support of his claim, Kerns’ expert witness, an orthopedic surgeon, testified that the traumas Kerns experienced in the 1987 and 2001 incidents were “‘most likely’ a large cause of Kerns’ total disability.” The Court held that this was insufficient to support a reasonable inference that Kerns’ disability was caused by accident because it was based on “assumptions of fact” or “conjectural factors.” 

According to the Court, an “accident” is defined by California case law as “a casualty — something out of the usual course of events and which happens suddenly and unexpectedly and without any design of the person injured.” Since Kerns’ symptoms arose in 2006 without any precipitating event, his accidental injury claim was unsupported. Therefore, after a bench trial, the Court gave judgment to Northwestern Mutual.

Lessons learned:Claims of this kind – where the insured asserts that an accident (often not contemporaneously reported to his doctors) is a contributing cause of his later claimed disability – occur with some regularity. These types of claims are difficult to resolve by summary judgment. In this instance, the Court found the insured’s assertion that certain accidents were the cause of his disability to be based on unsupported assumptions and conjecture.

Typically, in this kind of litigation there is significant uncertainty as to what conclusion the fact-finder will reach (accident versus sickness). And the consequences of an adverse determination may be heightened if a bad faith claim is also asserted. Here, by the time the bench trial occurred, there was no bad faith cause of action. Most insurers feel much more comfortable trying such cases if any such bad faith claim has already been eliminated.

For a mini-primer on the standards that might be used in assessing whether a disability claim is an accident or a sickness, those interested may wish to read Alessandro v. Massachusetts Casualty Ins. Co., 232 Cal. App. 2d 203 (1965), McMackin v. Great American Reserve Ins. Co., 22 Cal. App. 3d 428 (1971) and Salas v. Minnesota Mutual Life Ins. Co., 1994 U.S. App. LEXIS 30035 (9th Cir. [Cal.] 1994).

From A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disability Cases.

A Smorgasbord of Interesting Disablity Cases: Abuse of Discretion / Objective Evidence of Disability

Hagerty v. American Airlines Long Term Disability Plan, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91995 (N.D. Cal. 2010)

Facts and holdingOn November 15, 2004, Brian Hagerty (“Hagerty”), a flight attendant, filed a claim for long term disability benefits with his employer’s ERISA-governed long term disability plan (the “Plan”) due to HIV, Hepatitis C, fatigue and various other conditions.

Hagerty’s claim was approved and he received disability benefits under the Plan for three years. On April 14, 2008, the administrator of the Plan terminated Hagerty’s benefits on the grounds that Hagerty did not provide sufficient evidence that he was disabled, in part because he had provided no objective medical evidence of his fatigue claims. Further, the administrator determined that based on the medical information reviewed, Hagerty would be able to work as a sales attendant, appointment clerk or cashier. Following Hagerty’s appeal and the final denial of his claim, Hagerty filed a lawsuit against the Plan. The Plan moved for summary judgment.

Applying an abuse of discretion standard of review, the Court denied the Plan’s motion on the following grounds:

  1. The Plan required Hagerty to provide it with objective medical evidence of fatigue when the Plan itself did not expressly require such proof; this suggested that the Plan abused its discretion;
  2. The Plan failed to inform Hagerty that he had not attached relevant medical information to his claim submission and instead decided his claim based on an incomplete file; this also suggested abuse of discretion;
  3. The Plan never considered whether Hagerty’s HIV status affected his ability to perform any occupation and did not contest the importance of doing so; and
  4. The Plan never obtained Hagerty’s Social Security file and never addressed the fact that although the Plan determined that Hagerty was not disabled, the Social Security Administration determined that Hagerty was disabled.

Therefore, the Court could not conclude as a matter of law that the Plan did not abuse its discretion in denying Hagerty’s claim for continued long term disability benefits. As a result, the Plan’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

Lessons LearnedAlthough this is a lesson most LTD insurers have at one time or another already learned, the conclusion is perhaps simply that the application of an “abuse of discretion” standard does not mean that courts will “rubber stamp” the insurer’s decision.

The question of whether an insurer can demand “objective” evidence of a disability is one that many cases have addressed. The above opinion was an LTD case that was ERISA-governed. However, certainly in the DI field, the issue provides a trap for the unwary. In the author’s opinion, while DI carriers may consider the lack of objective evidence of impairment or disability in making a claims decision, they cannot insist upon such evidence when the policy does not require it. The trap is set when the DI carrier denies a claim, but is “loose” with its language in the denial letter as to the role that a lack of objective evidence played in the decision. Given how often an insured claims that the insistence by the insurer of objective medical evidence constitutes bad faith, the author has long been an advocate in making the DI insurer’s position clear. As but one example:

 We also note that you failed to provide any objective evidence of your impairment. While objective evidence is not required in providing adequate proof of loss, and while we do not require that disability claims be established solely by objective evidence, your claim of [condition or impairment] is one for which we would typically expect to see such evidence. Thus, the lack of such evidence in the circumstances present here was one factor in our assessment.” 1

1. Lawyer’s exculpatory fine print: The author is not suggesting that the above language is appropriate for any particular claims decision, or that use of such language will exculpate a disability insurer from a claim of bad faith or abuse of discretion. It is provided simply to demonstrate that if an insurer is relying upon the lack of objective evidence in support of a claim, it should make clear the distinction between considering the lack of objective evidence (for whatever weight it is worth) and requiring such evidence to establish a valid claim.

Don't Miss the Barger & Wolen Presentations at the 2010 Western Claim Conference

Barger & Wolen partners Martin E. Rosen and Robert E. Hess will each present at the 2010 Western Claim Conference (June 27-29, 2010 | Indian Wells, CA).

Disability Legal Update by Martin E. Rosen (Session 2 | Monday, June 28)

  • Keep up to date! What topics have disability insurers and their insured’s been battling about in the courts over the past year? And with what results? Come hear an outside counsel seasoned in litigating disability bad faith disputes discuss some of the issues that judges from around the country have written about in their published legal decisions.

"Help! They want to take my deposition!" by Robert E. Hess (Session 3 | Monday, June 28)

  • This presentation is designed to help personnel across the insurance industry prepare for and give a quality deposition.

We look forward to seeing you at the WCC. If you cannot attend, but would like a copy of the materials, please contact Mr. Rosen or Mr. Hess directly.

 

Assembly's Insurance Committee to Hold Hearing Today on Legislation Voiding Discretionary Clauses in Disability and Life Insurance Policies

The California Assembly’s Insurance Committee is scheduled to conduct its first hearing today on AB 1868, a bill outlawing clauses in insurance policies and other related documents that purport to vest the insurer with discretionary power to determine eligibility for benefits or to interpret the terms of the policy.

Under the proposed legislation introduced by Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), any provision in an insurance policy, contract, certificate or agreement providing or funding life insurance or disability insurance coverage that purports to reserve discretionary authority with the insurer would be void and unenforceable. The bill would also require that the Insurance Commissioner disapprove of any disability policy containing such a provision.

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The Words "Accidental Bodily Injury" in a Disability Insurance Policy Connote an Injury Produced by a Sudden Event

Bilezikjian v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of America, __ F. Supp. 2d __ (C.D. Cal. Jan. 25, 2010).

Without a sudden event, an insured’s injury does not constitute an “accidental bodily injury” within the meaning of a disability insurance policy that distinguishes between accident versus sickness. Where it was undisputed that the insured’s disabling condition -- carpal tunnel syndrome (or “CTS”) -- was caused by repetitive and forceful activities in which the insured had engaged for years in connection with his occupation as an orthopedic surgeon, the insured’s disability was not due to an “accidental bodily injury” as a matter of law. This was the common-sense approach taken by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Bilezikjian v. Unum Life Insurance Co. of America.

Bilezikjian was insured under several disability income policies issued to him by Unum Life. The insurance policies provided that benefits were payable up to age 65 for disability due to “sickness.” The policies also provided that lifetime benefits were payable for disabilities due to “accidental bodily injury,” terms that were not further defined.

Bilezikjian collected total disability benefits for his CTS under the sickness provision of his policies for years until he reached age 65. However, as Bilezikjian neared age 65, he sought ongoing benefits under the policies’ “accidental bodily injury” provision, asserting that his CTS should be considered accidental because he never intended to render himself totally disabled. Unum Life determined that Bilezikjian’s CTS was not due to an accidental bodily injury. Bilezikjian then filed suit for breach of contract, bad faith and punitive damages.

Unum Life moved for summary judgment on all claims, primarily on the basis that in accordance with Gin v. Pennsylvania Life Insurance Co., 134 Cal. App. 4th 939 (2005), “the culmination of repetitive stresses caused by normal, everyday activities is not the result of an accidental bodily injury.” Bilezikjian pursued a cross motion for partial summary judgment on his contract claim.

In granting Unum Life’s motion and denying Bilezikjian’s cross motion, the District Court held that the terms “accidental bodily injury” were unambiguous and that Unum Life did not breach its insurance contracts with Bilezikjian when it concluded that his CTS was not covered under the policies’ “accidental bodily injury” provision.

Jenny Wang is counsel for Unum Life in this matter.
 

Council for Disability Awareness Follows Approvals of Disability Claims by the SSA and Private Disability Insurers

Allison Bell of the National Underwriter reported on September 11, 2009 that approved disability claims rose more quickly in 2008 at the Social Security Disability Insurance program than at private disability insurers. She explained that the Council for Disability Awareness in Portland, Maine reported that findings in a summary of results from an analysis of SSDI program data and a survey of the 15 CDA member disability insurance companies were as follows:

SSDI applications rose 5.9% in 2008, to 2.3 million, and the number of workers approved for SSDI benefits increased 8.7%, to 895,000, the CDA reports.

The percentage of workers covered by the SSDI program who are receiving SSDI benefits increased to 4.8% in 2008, from 3.5% in 1998.

At CDA member companies, the number of individuals receiving long-term disability benefits payments increased 1.5% in 2008, to 573,500, and 30% of the member companies’ LTD claimants do not qualify for SSDI benefits, the CDA says.

Because of the aging of the U.S. workforce, the percentage of claims filed by workers under age 50 has been declining, and the number filed by workers over that age has been increasing.

But 27% of the survey participants said the overall claims rate has stayed about the same, and 64% said the incidence rate has been falling.

Only one of the participating companies said the recession has had any noticeable effect on disability claims.
 

Court of Appeal Complicates the Analysis of Mental and Nervous Disability Claims

In Bosetti v. The United States Life Ins. Co., 175 Cal.App. 4th 1208 (2009), the California Court of Appeal addressed whether a standard, two-year benefits limitation on disabilities due to “mental, nervous or emotional disorder[s]” could serve to limit benefits payable to an insured disabled from depression and anxiety who also complained of interrelated physical impairments. The Bosetti court held that the limitation was ambiguous and was not applicable if the claimant’s physical problems contributed to her disabling depression or were a cause or symptom of that depression. The Bosetti court further concluded that the insurer’s denial of benefits based upon that two-year limitation was not in bad faith under the genuine issue doctrine.

Bosetti worked as an assistant director of adult education for a school district and first sought treatment after learning that her position would be terminated. Based upon the report of her treating physician and her complaints of depression and anxiety, she was put on temporary disability under her group policy. She thereafter applied for permanent disability benefits complaining of depression and fibromyalgia pain in her muscles, though her treating physician reported that her disabling impairment was solely mental or nervous in nature. After paying Bosetti’s benefits for two years, United States Life determined that she did not qualify for any additional benefits and could work in “any occupation”, which was the governing disability standard after two years. That determination was based primarily upon the two-year benefits limitation for mental or nervous disorders, the results of a functional capacity examination, and an independent physician consultation.

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Erreca, Moore, Austero, and now. . . Hecht

Hecht v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 168 Cal. App. 4th 30 (2008)

Practitioners in the field of bad faith disability law are all familiar with the "grandaddy" of DI cases, Erreca v. Western States Life Ins. Co., 19 Cal. 2d 388 (1942), as well as its children, Moore v American United Life Ins. Co., 150 Cal. App. 3d 610 (1984) and Austero v. Nat. Casualty Co., 84 Cal. App. 3d 1 (1978), overruled on other grounds in Egan v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co., 24 Cal. 3d (1979). For years these cases have explained how the concept of "total disability" is to be interpreted in California. In citing these cases, plaintiffs lawyers -- and often the courts -- would usually only cite to the first part of the famous Erreca definition: "[T]he term 'total disability' . . . means such a disability as renders the insured unable to perform the substantial and material acts necessary to the prosecution of a business or occupation in the usual or customary way." The courts seemed reluctant to qualify the definition with the second part of Erreca's teachings: "Conversely, the insured is not totally disabled if he is physically and mentally capable of performing a substantial portion of the work connected with his employment." Now Erreca has spawned a "grandchild" that confirms that the second part of the definition is equally important.

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