Court Rejects ERISA Insurer’s Effort to Discredit Treating Physicians in Awarding Disability Benefits

A recent decision from federal court in Oregon is an interesting example of how ERISA disability benefit disputes can arise where the claimant suffers from complex and hard-to-diagnose conditions such as fibromyalgia. Since conditions like fibromyalgia defy easy identification, these cases often turn on the claimant’s treating doctor’s documentation of the claimant’s symptoms.

Jane Medefesser sued her LTD carrier, MetLife, after MetLife denied her disability insurance claim. Medefesser suffered from a host of medical conditions including fibromyalgia and migraines. Medefesser’s doctors opined her medical conditions impacted her ability to function even in a sedentary job.

MetLife initially approved Medefesser’s disability claim. But MetLife subsequently changed its position and terminated Medefesser’s benefits after an “independent” doctor hired by MetLife determined Medefesser could perform sedentary work. MetLife also relied on opinions from its physicians that Medefesser’s doctors were, supposedly, exaggerating Medefesser’s symptoms.

The court disagreed with MetLife that Medefesser’s doctors were exaggerating her symptoms. To the contrary, the court noted that, given the complexity of Medefesser’s condition, the treating doctors who personally examined Medefesser were in the best position to reliably assess her disability.

This ruling is notable because it addresses a common issue in ERISA disability cases involving conditions like migraines or fibromyalgia. Where the claimant’s disability arises from complex conditions that defy easy diagnosis, disability insurers have an incentive to rely on the supposed lack of “objective” findings or review by “independent” consultants. These consultants’ opinions typically boil down to: “if it doesn’t show up on an x-ray, it’s not real.” The Medefesser decision is a great example of a judge rejecting such an argument.

 

ERISA Plan Administrator Cannot Unilaterally Ignore Treating Physicians, Appeals Court Confirms

A recent appeals court ruling emphasizes that ERISA plan administrators cannot ignore the opinions of a claimant’s treating physicians absent tangible evidence those opinions are wrong.  In Hennen v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the appellate court ruled the plan administrator acted arbitrarily in discounting the opinions of the claimant’s treating physicians and remanded the claim for a full and fair review.

After a back injury, Hennen applied for long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits with her employer’s group policy insured by MetLife.  MetLife agreed that Hennen was disabled and paid benefits for two years.  But after two years, MetLife terminated Hennen’s benefits, finding that the Plan’s limitation for neuromusculoskeletal disorders cut off Hennen’s benefits after two years of payments.   Hennen sued under ERISA, arguing she fell within an exception to the two-year cutoff because she had radiculopathy.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled for Hennen.  Although the court acknowledge ERISA required deference to MetLife’s decision because the plan contained discretionary language, the court noted discretionary authority did not permit MetLife to act arbitrarily in deciding Hennen’s entitlement to benefits.  The court determined MetLife acted arbitrarily when it discounted the opinions of four doctors who diagnosed Hennen with radiculopathy in favor of the opinion of one physician who ultimately disagreed, but only while recommending additional testing that MetLife declined to pursue.

The court noted that even though a plan administrator is typically permitted to chose which medical opinions to rely on, its decision must still have a rational explanation.  Every physician who examined Hennen since 2012 concluded she had radiculopathy.  These doctors’ opinions had substantial medical support.  While MetLife chose to ignore these doctors’ opinions in favor of its own employee Dr. McPhee, that decision was arbitrary.  Dr. McPhee recommended Hennen undergo further testing and an independent medical examination in order to determine whether Hennen’s radiculopathy diagnosis was correct, but MetLife ignored that suggestion.  The court emphasized:

Here, MetLife took an extra step for its own benefit when it referred Hennen’s file to Dr. McPhee for review. But when Dr. McPhee recommended that MetLife take an additional step for Hennen’s benefit — to confirm whether his lone opinion that she did not suffer from radiculopathy was accurate—MetLife declined to take that step.That was arbitrary and capricious.

The court also emphasized “Although it is reasonable for MetLife to require objective support for a diagnosis of radiculopathy, it would be unreasonable to discount clinical observations of Hennen’s treating physicians in favor of testing that is inconclusive for the condition.”

The court ordered Hennen’s claims be remanded to MetLife for the full and fair evaluation ERISA mandates.

The Hennen decisions represents an important enforcement of ERISA’s requirement that insureds and claimants be afforded a fair and objective determination of their entitlement to benefits, even where the Plan affords the plan administrator discretionary authority.