Fairness, Anyone?

Ever since Firestone v. Bruch, 109 S. Ct. 948 (1989),many disability insurance carriers have been getting a free ride on SSDI. 

LTD insurance companies force claimants to pursue Social Security for disability benefits so they can recoup monies they have laid out in paying the  private insurance claim.  And then insurers totally ignore the SSDI disability finding when evaluating the claim they have to pay under their ERISA policy. 

 However, as courts come to realize the obvious conflict of interest these claims generate, they are beginning to look at this free ride more and more closely.  Why should insurers be permitted to force claimants to go after SSDI benefits and then totally ignore them when deciding its own case with the same claimant?

The U. S. Supreme Court itself has recognized the problem.  It succinctly stated in MetLife v. Glenn, 128 S. Ct. 2343 (2008)  at Page 2352:

“…MetLife had encouraged Glenn to argue to the Social Security Administration that she could do no work, received the bulk of the benefits of her success in doing so (being entitled to receive an offset from her retroactive Social Security award), and then ignored the agency’s finding in concluding she could do sedentary work…”

Wouldn’t it be more evenhanded to have a successful SSDI claim raise a rebuttable presumption in the private LTD case that the claim is legitimate medically and is totally disabling?  Such a presumption would not be anywhere near a  lock on the issue, but would require the insurance company to come forth with reasonable proof that the SSDI finding was mistaken or that the SSDI decision did not apply to the current LTD claim. 

Proving SSDI claims is not a walk in the park.  SSDI judges have no more inclination to award benefits than do employers and insurance companies.  Only about one-third of SSDI claims result in benefits being initially awarded to claimants.  There is no conflict of interest nagging at an SSDI judge as there is at an insurance administrator, so the SSDI decision would appear more reliable.

While the SSDI judgment should not bind the insurer, it is a considered judicial decision that warrants more than a snub in defense of a claim.

If Federal District Courts were to hold that SSDI judgments raise a rebuttable presumption that a claimant is totally disabled, the insurer would be required to rebut on the merits a judgment by an unconflicted court, instead of paying the judgment lip service, and then ignoring it, to justify denial of a private LTD claim for its own benefit.

There are many reasons why such a presumption could be overcome by an insurance company:

* The terms of the insurance policy does not cover the illness or injury
* Evidence of an error in the SSDI proceeding or findings
* New evidence after the SSDI hearing (the claimant should also then be able to meet this evidence).
* Fraud on the SSDI court which impugns the decision (i.e., evidence that the claimant is working)..

With a rebuttable presumption approach, more weight would be given to an SSDI judgment, but the judgment still would not be binding on the Federal District Court when the insurer could show, with real evidence, that it should not be binding.

Such a judgment should not be ignored by an insurer which has benefited from it, unless there is a legitimate evidentiary reason for not following it.

A rebuttable presumption approach by Federal Courts to SSDI judgments would seem to be a fair way to deal with this crucial issue in ERISA LTD cases.