HomeDisability InsuranceHartford Denies LTD Claim of Social Worker with CFS

Hartford Denies LTD Claim of Social Worker with CFS

In Easter v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., the plaintiff, Audrey M. Easter, a former Social Worker for Intermountain Healthcare, was insured under a disability insurance plan administered by Defendant Hartford. Under this plan, Defendant Hartford was the claims administrator responsible for determining benefits and the payor of those claims. ERISA governed the insurance plan.

The plaintiff submitted a claim for disability benefits under the plan after she stopped working for Intermountain Healthcare. In connection with her claim for benefits, she submitted attending physician statements from two of her treating medical providers: certified physician’s assistant (“PA-C”) Megan Sandy and advanced practice registered nurse (“APRN”) Megan Jones.  The statements identified chronic fatigue syndrome (“CFS”), obstructive sleep apnea, and hypersomnia as the relevant disabling physical conditions.

Although Hartford initially paid some short-term benefits, it later denied the Plaintiff’s claim for long-term disability benefits. In its denial letter, Hartford identified the documents it relied on in making its decision, including medical information that showed, among other things, that Ms. Easter had “received treatment for depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety by Megan Sandy.” 

After outlining the evidence, Hartford stated that it had determined that Ms. Easter’s psychiatric conditions fell within the scope of the Plan’s pre-existing condition limitation and denied her LTD claim for her psychiatric conditions.

Hartford then separately evaluated Ms. Easter’s physical condition. Hartford stated that for Ms. Easter “to meet the definition of… for the physical conditions her medical provider outlined, she must be unable to perform the Essential Duties of her Occupation throughout and beyond the Elimination Period,” while also noting that Ms. Easter’s occupation was “considered a sedentary level occupation.” A sedentary occupation is a “desk job,” or one that involves sitting most of the day.

Hartford “reviewed the medical information for Ms. Easter’s physical conditions, including hypersomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.” Hartford further noted that it had “received a response from Megan Jones, APRN, confirming Ms. Easter was able to perform a sedentary and light-level occupation.” Thus, Hartford concluded that she could perform her occupation and denied the LTD claim with respect to Ms. Easter’s physical conditions. 

The plaintiff then filed an administrative appeal of the denial of benefits. In the appeal letter, Ms. Easter agreed that she “was receiving treatment for her Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Attacks” during the period subject to the pre-existing condition limitation. Accordingly, Ms. Easter appealed only the initial claim decision regarding CFS, hypersomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea.

Hartford referred Ms. Easter’s file to an outside vendor for an independent physician peer review. The peer review was assigned to Dr. Allen Blavias, who was board-certified in Sleep Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine, and Critical Care Medicine. In evaluating Ms. Easter’s claim, Dr. Blavias purportedly reviewed the “entire 512-page medical file” and spoke with Ms. Easter’s primary healthcare providers, APRN Jones and PA-C Sandy.

When speaking to Dr. Blavias, APRN Jones “acknowledged that Ms. Easter’s symptoms of excessive daytime sleepiness appeared to be out of proportion to the degree of obstructive sleep apnea.” APRN Jones also “felt that the primary cause of Ms. Easter’s severe fatigue was likely her mental health issues, rather than a sleep disorder.” PA-C Sandy remained “confident,” in the diagnosis of CFS but, like APRN Jones, “acknowledged that the sleep disorders and other medical issues did not seem adequate to explain Ms. Easter’s reported symptoms.” Based on this independent review, Dr. Blavias concluded that:

“CFS is typically only diagnosed after other causes of fatigue have been eliminated. In this case, Ms. Easter appears to have ongoing significant psychiatric issues, including severe depression and anxiety, which may also cause similar symptoms as CFS. As I am not an expert in these areas, I cannot opine as to the degree that they may be causing impairment. She has a diagnosis of mild obstructive sleep apnea with mild hypersomnia. It is unlikely that these are significantly contributing to her complaints and would not be expected to cause significant impairments in function.”

Hartford then scheduled a neuropsychological evaluation to determine if Ms. Easter’s “reported cognitive complaints are the result of” CFS. Hartford again referred the file to an outside vendor for evaluation. Dr. Kevin Duff, board-certified in clinical neuropsychology, performed Ms. Easter’s independent evaluation. Dr. Duff found that Ms. Easter’s symptoms were “more likely than not to be exaggerated” and “there was no clear evidence to suggest that Ms. Easter would have issues with endurance at work.”

Hartford denied the appeal, stating that it had “considered not only the medical information provided but also information you provided to us, as well as the opinion of your treatment providers, review by the independent physician and the neuropsychological evaluation results along with provisions” of the Plan.  Hartford concluded that “the evidence does not support that you suffer from a physical condition, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, OSA, etc. of such severity to warrant any restrictions/limitations on your activities… As such, the denial of your claim for LTD benefits was appropriate and the claim remains closed.” 

Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Utah. She alleged that Defendant wrongfully denied her claim for disability benefits in violation of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Because the court was reviewing the Defendant’s decision under the arbitrary and capricious standard and had found no basis for reducing its deference to the Defendant’s decision, it must uphold the denial of benefits so long as it is “predicated on a reasoned basis.”

According to ERISA, the Defendant must provide clear written notice to any participant or beneficiary whose benefit claim is denied, explaining the reasons for the denial in an easily understandable way. The law does not require administrators to provide an extensive list of all evidence considered or disregarded, nor does it demand a detailed explanation when rejecting a treating physician’s opinion.

Here, Plaintiff claimed that errors in Defendant’s administrative process led to an unreasonable denial of benefits, which Plaintiff considers arbitrary and capricious. Some of these errors pertain to the initial rejection of Plaintiff’s claim. Plaintiff argued that Defendant neglected to address the following specific points:

  1. Plaintiff’s chronic fatigue syndrome,
  2. Information from Plaintiff’s primary care provider,
  3. Plaintiff’s self-reported work limitations, and
  4. Intermountain Healthcare’s work-hour requirement.

Plaintiff also argued that Defendant failed to obtain independent medical or vocational opinions as part of its initial claim review. ERISA law does not require this either. 

Plaintiff further alleged that Defendant relied on a form letter that was immaterial to her disability.

However, the court held that it is not the court’s role to weigh or evaluate the medical evidence in the record—including whether the form letter was material. The court found that Defendant interviewed Plaintiff, interviewed her medical providers, and reviewed all her medical records. Even if the form letter were immaterial, the court was not willing to find that Hartford’s reliance upon the letter, in addition to the rest of the evidence, was so improper that it would make the Defendant’s decision arbitrary and capricious.

The plaintiff also argued that the defendant improperly ignored the mental impairments she faced due to her chronic fatigue syndrome and sleep disorders. While she didn’t deny having pre-existing mental impairments, she claimed that her chronic fatigue syndrome and sleep disorders caused mental impairments independently.

However, the defendant concluded that the plaintiff’s mental impairments were pre-existing conditions under the plan, making her ineligible for long-term benefits for any disability resulting from these impairments. In her appeal letter, the plaintiff admitted that her mental impairments were pre-existing conditions and did not contest the defendant’s application of the pre-existing condition limitation. The defendant also confirmed in writing that the plaintiff wasn’t challenging the pre-existing condition determination, and she didn’t raise any objections.

Overall, the plaintiff didn’t argue that the disability she sought benefits for stemmed from mental impairments. Instead, she highlighted “debilitating fatigue,” “severe sleep disturbances,” “trouble with memory, focus, and concentration,” and “malaise” as the symptoms of her chronic fatigue syndrome and other sleep disorders that led to the alleged disability.

In this situation, the District Court concluded that it was not arbitrary and capricious for Defendant to ignore Plaintiff’s claimed mental issues. This is because she didn’t challenge the decision that these problems existed before and also didn’t say these issues caused her disability.

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant wrongly relied on the initial denial of the claim and overlooked her primary care physician’s report during the appeal. However, the court found that the administrative record indicates that the independent reviewers hired by the defendant reevaluated the evidence. They were briefed on the primary care physician’s report and the plaintiff’s medical records. One of the reviewers even had a phone conversation with the primary care physician.

Moreover, there was evidence in the administrative record that contradicts the plaintiff’s argument that the independent reviewing physicians neglected to assess her chronic fatigue syndrome. One of the independent physicians evaluated the plaintiff’s chronic fatigue syndrome, and another conducted a separate neuropsychological evaluation.

The court held that ERISA does not mandate the defendant to conduct a vocational review of the plaintiff’s claim, as she asserts.

Despite the alleged procedural errors, which, as discussed, did not make the benefits denial arbitrary, the District Court found substantial evidence supporting the defendant’s decision. The administrative record reveals that the defendant thoroughly investigated the plaintiff’s claim. They considered the plaintiff’s reports, the primary care physician’s reports, and the input from independent reviewers.

As such, the District Court concluded that Hartford’s “decision to deny [Ms. Easter] benefits was reasonable and not arbitrary and capricious.”  Accordingly, the District Court granted Hartford’s Motion for Summary Judgment and denied Ms. Easter’s motion, affirming that the decision was reasonable and backed by more than enough evidence.

Easter appealed the District Court’s decision to the Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals also found no procedural irregularities in Hartford’s review process that called for an alteration of the standard of review. Furthermore, The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not err in concluding that Hartford’s appeal decision was supported by substantial evidence.  As such, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s judgment.

Disclaimer: This case was not handled by disability attorney Nick A. Ortiz. The court case is summarized here to give readers a better understanding of how Federal Courts decide long-term disability ERISA claims.

Here are PDF copies of the decisions: