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Articles Tagged with disability

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A federal court in Pennsylvania recently certified a class of Plaintiffs under Defendant Aetna Life Insurance Co.’s disability benefits plan (“Plan”). The Plaintiffs alleged that the Defendants forced beneficiaries who had received payments for personal injury claims to send the payments back to the company in violation of ERISA.

The named Plaintiff, Joanne Wolff, first filed suit against Aetna in 2019 when the company asked for the repayment of over $50,000 in long-term disability benefits stemming from a temporary disability suffered by the Plaintiff after a car wreck. At the time of the request, Wolff told the Defendants that her employer, Bank of America, did not allow reimbursement, and negotiations ended in an agreement that that Wolff would pay $30,000 despite this fact.

This did not end the dispute, however, and Wolff along with an at least 48-member class now allege that Aetna violated ERISA when it required reimbursement payments of long-term personal injury disability payments. Aetna responded that class certification would be inappropriate, as the proposed class did not meet the specifications required for certification under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Mainly, the Defendants argued that some of the members of the proposed class should be disqualified, thus the number of participants in the class did not meet the numerosity requirement. It argued that since some of the members of the class were from different companies, there was not sufficient typicality to fulfill the requirements under the Civil Rules and members under other employers should be disqualified, reducing the class number to 28. Aetna also argued that timing issues barred several more participants under the relevant statutes of limitations.

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Recently, a federal judge in Texas court ruled in favor of retired NFL player, Michael Cloud, determining that the administrators of The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (“Plan”) violated their fiduciary duties under ERISA in denying Cloud a full and fair application review. Cloud’s appeal concerned his eligibility for the highest level of disability benefits under the Plan, which was subsequently denied by the Defendants.

Cloud boasts an impressive NFL career, playing 7 seasons, including for the New England Patriots during their 2004 Super Bowl winning year. Cloud additionally played for the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Giants between 1999 and his retirement in 2006. During his career, Cloud states that he injured “virtually every aspect of his body” as well as endured numerous cases of head trauma known as “dings” (an instance where a player’s vision goes black due to a hard hit to their head). One of Cloud’s last head injuries sustained in 2004 led to his early retirement, as the frequency and severity of the injuries had caused “cumulative mental disorders.” In 2010, Cloud began receiving benefits under the retirement Plan, and was found to be “totally and permanently” disabled in 2014. Subsequently, in 2016 Cloud applied for reclassification under the Plan but was denied both initially and on appeal.

Cloud brought an action against the Plan in 2020, alleging that his application for reclassification was never fully reviewed by the Defendants. He alleged that the Defendants (including six board members for the Plan) did not adequately review his over 1000-page application. Instead, a paralegal was made to write a summary of the application for the administrators. It has been speculated that the decision on the matter was already drafted before the administrators viewed the summary of the new appeal, as it cited to incorrect documents that belonged to the wrong benefits plan. Further, the denial letter included contradicting information with written minutes taken at the board meeting during their deliberation; the minutes state that the only reason for the denial was the Cloud did not show by clear and convincing evidence the existence of a new injury, while the letter additionally states that the application was made outside of a 180-day deadline among other timing issues. During closing arguments, counsel for Cloud stated that the issue of unfair denial is not new nor exclusive to Cloud, and that the Plan consistently failed to fully review applications by reviewing as many as 50 at a time with no discussion of the specific cases.

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The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently held that under ERISA, the “deferential review” standard is not a one size fits all seal of approval for plan administrators’ reasoning in denying claims. The case giving rise to this decision is Garner v. Central States and Southwest Areas Health and Welfare Fund Active Plan in which the Defendants denied the Plaintiff’s claim for the reimbursement of medical costs related to their back surgery. A court in North Carolina provided the original ruling in the case (later upheld by the Court of Appeals) that the plan at issue had “abused its discretion” in denying the claim.

The case boiled down to two significant issues relating to the determination that benefits would be denied, each addressed by the Court of Appeals. The first relates to the omission of an MRI scan in the documents to be analyzed by the first reviewing doctor in making their decision on the availability of benefits. This omission was held to be significant, as the results of the MRI were crucial to the Plaintiff’s treating doctor’s decision to operate. Secondly, no notes from the Plaintiff’s treating doctor relating to the decision to conduct surgery and discussion of the MRI were provided to the reviewing doctor.

The Plaintiff’s initial appeal was denied on the grounds that a second reviewing doctor had reached the same conclusions as the first. Thus, according to the Defendants, the lack of information provided to the first doctor did not preclude denial. The Court disagreed with this argument, stating that the issues with the first doctor’s review were not cured by the concurrence of the second doctor, as their opinion also misstated facts surrounding the Plaintiff’s need for surgery. As a result, the Court held that the Defendants’ denial of the claim was not “the result of a deliberate, principled, reasoning process.”

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