The Basics of an ERISA Life, Health and Disability Insurance Claim – Part Four: Denial of an ERISA Disability Claim or Appeal

In this several-part blog series titled The Basics of an ERISA Life, Health and Disability Insurance Claim, we discuss the basics of an ERISA life, health, accidental death and dismemberment and disability claim, from navigating a claim, to handling a claim denial and through preparing a case for litigation.  In Part Four of this series, we discuss ERISA claim denials.  Our focus in this article will be mostly on disability insurance claim denials.

When denying a claim, an insurer is required to provide a written explanation of the basis of its denial.  Under Section 503 of ERISA, “every employee benefit plan shall . . . provide adequate notice in writing to any participant or beneficiary whose claim for benefits under the plan has been denied, setting forth the specific reasons for such denial, written in a manner calculated to be understood by the participant.”  29 U.S.C. § 1133(1).  In any subsequent litigation, the insurer is mostly limited to the basis for the denial that is asserted in a denial letter.  Once a claimant has sued the insurer, the insurer or its attorneys cannot formulate new reasons why it is believed that the denial was proper.  See, e.g., Lauder v. First Unum Life Ins. Co., 284 F.3d 375, 380-82 (2d Cir. 2002).

Generally, denials of disability claims fall into two broad categories: (1) lack of objective evidence in support of the disability, and (2) insufficient medical evidence to support the disability (i.e., that even though the claimant may be suffering from a diagnosable medical condition, there exists insufficient support that the medical condition is so severe so as to render the claimant unable to work).  As for a lack of objective evidence of a diagnosis or disability, unless a provision of the plan states otherwise, a claimant can rely on a variety of forms of evidence, even if there is no objective evidence to support the disability.  Evidence may include: current symptoms; other medical conditions that might affect or lengthen the recovery period; existing abnormalities or deficiencies; results from physical examinations; observations made by the treatment provider during office visits / therapy sessions; diagnostic tests and their results; treatment plans; any prescribed medications and the responses to those medications; level of functionality (restrictions and limitations); clinical documentation that supports the rationale that the treatment provider used when determining level of functionality; and a description of the impact that the employee’s level of functionality has on her ability to perform her job or any other job assigned by the company.

Of course, insurance companies do not want to pay most claims, and they often look for an excuse to deny ERISA claims.  Most of the time, they have their own medical personnel examine the medical evidence to determine whether the evidence supports a diagnosis and whether the evidence supports significant restrictions and limitations to the claimant’s ability to perform the substantial and material duties of his occupation.  However, the insurer cannot arbitrarily refuse to credit a claimant’s reliable evidence that supports his disability.  See Michaels v. Equitable Life Assur. Soc., 305 F.App’x 896, 906–07 (3d Cir. 2009).  A letter from a treating physician explaining that a claimant has a particular condition and cannot work because of that condition is reliable evidence that cannot properly be ignored without a reasonable basis.  When filing a claim, or appealing the denial of a claim, the ERISA claimant should always obtain letters from his treating physicians explaining the nature of the condition, the basis for the diagnosis, the claimant’s symptoms and the reason why the claimant cannot return to work.  Even if the insurer refuses to give the letters adequate weight, a judge in a subsequent lawsuit will likely consider the treating physicians’ opinions strongly.

ERISA claimants should carefully examine the plan to see if it requires “objective” evidence of a diagnosis or disability.  If so, the plan’s documents usually state what kind of evidence is required.  The plan may limit the relevant objective evidence to a specific and narrow list of symptoms and results from tests such as magnetic resonance imaging or electromyography.  Each plan is different, and the plan’s documents should be examined before deciding how to attempt to meet this requirement.  Insurers very often state in denial letters that there is no objective evidence of disability or diagnosis, even though the plan does not require objective evidence.  The denial letter may emphasize the lack of a test or documented restriction of movement.  Unless the plan requires the specific evidence that the denial letter demands, this may be an improper attempt to require that a claimant meet a heightened standard of disability that is not found in the plan.  Courts often criticize insurers for this type of conduct.  See Saffle v. Sierra Pacific Power Co., 85 F.3d 455, 459–60 (9th Cir. 1996).  Such conduct on the part of an insurer can compel a court to rule that the insurer improperly denied a claim and that it must pay a claimant’s benefits under a policy.

Insurers also often deny disability claims because there allegedly is insufficient support for the diagnosis, the disability and/or the claimant’s inability to perform his occupation.  This reason often takes the form of an assertion that the given diagnosis and restrictions do not support the conclusion that the claimant cannot perform her job duties.  For example, a claimant with chronic and severe irritable bowel syndrome may receive a denial letter stating that the claimant’s reported time spent in the bathroom is exaggerated and that, even if he suffers from the diagnosed condition, the claimant only needs ready access to a bathroom and permission to use it once every two hours.  The insurer will then assert that the diagnosis does not support a determination that the claimant simply cannot work.  Of course, this conclusion may be contradicted by the claimant’s treating physicians, but the insurer may discount those opinions because, in its opinion, the diagnosis does not support the level of restrictions prescribed.

Insurers often combine both of these methods when denying a claim.  An insurer may emphasize that a claimant can perform a sedentary occupation and will only disagree with a narrow, but critical, range of restrictions on the claimant’s behavior.  An example of this form of denial is one with regard to an office worker who has horrible back problems.  His job requires that he sit at a desk all day and work on a computer.  His back pain renders him incapable of performing a variety of tasks, including sitting for eight hours per day.  The insurer may acknowledge all of the limitations except for the restriction on the claimant’s ability to sit, stating that the back condition is not sufficiently severe so as to prevent the office worker from sitting.  The insurer then concludes that given that the claimant can allegedly perform the main requirement of the office job — sitting — the pain and other limitations are irrelevant, and the claimant is not entitled to benefits under the plan.

There are a variety of ways to overcome these denials.  A claimant can obtain independent evaluations of the condition in question.  This independent testing may reveal more evidence of the claimed restrictions.  The claimant may also undergo vocational assessments.  This testing by an independent evaluator may help to provide more concrete evidence that the claimant suffers from the contested condition and restrictions.  A determination affirming disability by a governmental agency, such as the Social Security Administration, may also help to overcome this form of denial.   Personal statements from the claimant, family and friends are also helpful.

The McKennon Law Group PC periodically publishes articles on its Insurance Litigation and Disability Insurance News blogs that deal with frequently asked questions in insurance bad faith, life insurance, long-term disability insurance, annuities, accidental death insurance, ERISA and other areas of law.  To speak with a highly skilled California/Nationwide disability insurance lawyer or ERISA lawyer at the McKennon Law Group PC, call (714)274-6322 for a free consultation or go to our website at and complete our free consultation form today.

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