A Stiff Upper Lip Can Hurt You

As anyone who practices in the area of disability law can attest, employees who become disabled are reluctant to admit they are disabled, and instead try to “suck it up” and carry on, even when their condition gives them very little hope of ever being able to permanently keep working. We’ve written about the “working disabled” before, but not in the context of O’Hara v. National Union Fire Insurance, 2011 WL 405448 (C. A.2 (N.Y.))).

O’Hara clearly illustrates that because a disabled employee continues to try to work, does not mean that employee will automatically be denied disability insurance benefits. This court clearly states that an employee’s continued presence at their place of employment does not preclude a finding of disability, if there is evidence he or she was actually incapable of performing the job.

This important principle needed to be reaffirmed. Disability carriers latch on to the fact that an employee tried to carry on despite the disability, to justify the denial of benefits.

In O’Hara, a company administrative assistant suffered a head injury in a fall. She was treated by several neurologists following the fall on March 15, 2001, but she continued to work.

As with all policies, Ms. O’Hara’s LTD policy had limiting language which defined whether she was eligible for long term disability. As with all policies, the language was not simple. She could recover if as a result of an accidental injury she was totally and permanently disabled and prevented from in engaging in each and every occupation or employment for which she was reasonable qualified by reason of education, training or experience. In addition, the policy required the disability to manifest itself within one year of the accident and to continue for a year.

Ms. O’Hara, while working, told her treating doctors it was necessary for her to make notes at work and at home so she could be able to remember the things she had to do. Also during this period, several of her coworkers complained to her superiors that she was behaving unprofessionally. However, her employer did not terminate her until June 6, 2002.

All during this period, Ms. O’Hara reported continuing headaches and severe memory lapses to her doctors, and was found by her own treating neurologist to be “completely disabled”.

Although the Federal District Court granted summary judgment to the insurer on a motion for summary judgment, the appeals court sent the case back for trial saying that the fact that Ms. O’Hara worked after the injury does not automatically mean that she was not permanently disabled by the accident. The appeals court found much in the record to support her contention that she was actually disabled even though she went to work. The appeals court found that the District Court had erred in granting summary judgment while there were major facts in dispute and that a trial and findings of fact by the trial court were necessary.

Insurance companies and courts should realize, as the 2nd Circuit did in this case, that disabilities are not necessarily fully developed when they first strike. Many illnesses and injuries take time to develop the full extent of their impairments.

Further, many employees are not anxious to go on disability and resist it for as long as they can. As a matter of public policy, employees should not be penalized for doing so – they should be praised.

If insurers jump on every employee who tries to work through their injury and deny benefits because the employee tried to work, insurers will be hurting themselves because they will discourage claimants from trying to work.

The decision in O’Hara sends a clear message to carriers that such conduct will no longer be accepted unless the evidence in the case justifies it.






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