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

Bosetti v. The United States Life Ins. Co., 175 Cal. App. 4th 1208 (2009) is an important California Court of Appeal decision that addressed whether a 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.

Bosetti was employed by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. As part of her employment benefits, she was covered under a group long-term disability insurance policy issued by The United States Life Insurance Company in the City of New York (“U.S. Life”).

Bosetti‘s job was eliminated for economic reasons. Shortly after she learned that her employment would be terminated, she saw a doctor for depression and was placed on temporary disability. Her disability extend beyond two years, and had a physical component as well as an emotional one.  Under the policy, Bosetti could obtain disability benefits for two years if she was disabled from her own occupation. After that time, she could only obtain disability benefits if she was disabled from “any occupation.”  U.S. Life concluded that Bosetti was not disabled from any occupation and terminated her disability benefits at the end of 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.

After the U.S. Life moved for and was granted summary judgment, Bosetti appealed.  The court of appeal 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 dispute doctrine.

The Bosetti court explained that the insured’s disability had both mental and physical elements, noting that one of her doctors had suggested that her physical disability arose out of her emotional disability and another that her emotional disability or depression arose out of her physical problems and chronic pain. The court held that the two-year mental limitation was ambiguous because it “does not clearly explain whether the limitation applies when the total disability is due in part to a mental, nervous …disorder” and because an insured’s reasonable expectations are that disabling depression arising from a physical condition like fibromyalgia and, correspondingly, disabling physical symptoms arising from depression, would not fall within the mental/nervous limitation.

As part of its analysis, the court rejected the rationale of Equitable Life Assurance Society v. Berry, 212 Cal. App. 3d 832, 835, 840 (1989), a California opinion concerned with an insured who was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness, a condition which has a chemical (physical) etiology, rather than a purely mental one. The Berry court concluded, as a matter of law, that there was no coverage due to a disability policy‘s exclusion for “[m]ental or nervous disorders” and a health policy‘s limitation on benefits for treatment for a neurosis, psycho-neurosis, psychopathy, psychosis, or mental or nervous disease or disorder of any kind, on the basis that these exclusions were unambiguous and referred solely to symptoms, rather than causes.  Id. at 840.  The court disagreed with Berry for two reasons: it disagreed with its analysis and its holding was abrogated by statute.

The court found that the holding of Berry did not survive Insurance Code section 10123.15, which provides that “every group policy of disability insurance which covers hospital, medical, and surgical expenses on a group basis, and which offers coverage for disorders of the brain shall also offer coverage in the same manner for the treatment of the following biologically based severe mental disorders: schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorders and delusional depressions, and pervasive developmental disorder. Coverage for these mental disorders shall be subject to the same terms and conditions applied to the treatment of other disorders of the brain.”  It appears that based on the court’s ruling, the two-year mental or nervous disorders limitation can never be applied in California to the biologically based severe mental disorders of “schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorders and delusional depressions, and pervasive developmental disorder.”

The court adopted the Ninth Circuit’s approach in Patterson v. Hughes Aircraft Co., 11 F.3d 949, 950 (9th Cir. 1993) where the court concluded that a limitation on benefits resulting from “mental, nervous or emotional disorders of any type” was ambiguous as to whether mental disorders referred to causes or symptoms, and whether a disability is mental when it results from a combination of physical and mental factors.  The court resolved the ambiguity in favor of the insured, holding that the limitation on coverage did not apply if the insured‘s disability was caused, in any part, by his physical symptoms.

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