Court upholds Standard Insurance Company’s denial of disability benefits, despite claimant’s approval of social security disability benefits

For several years, Elizabeth Black was the executive director of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. (MWF), the organization that governs Summerfest, a music festival in Milwaukee.  Black was covered under the company’s disability insurance plan, underwritten and administered by Standard Insurance Company.  Black was diagnosed with multiple aortic aneurysms, bulging and weak areas in the aorta.  In 2001, Black had surgery to repair the aneurysms and was recommended by her doctor to medically manage a third aneurysm in the descending aorta.

After surgery and recuperation, Black went back to work in the summer of 2001 being monitored closely by her doctor, Dr. Brian Griffin, as well as her cardiologist, Dr. David Slosky for hypertension.  At the end of 2002, Black was in contract negotiations, trying to land another five year contract with MWF, but at the same, time her relationship with co-workers was strained to the point that she was experiencing harassment.  In a letter sent to the counsel for MWF, Black complained about her co-workers, the harassment and her desire for a new contract.  She sent letters from her two doctors as well as her neurologist Dr. Griffin explained that Black, “has significant hypertensive problems… it is vital that her blood pressure be well controlled. Stress, particularly in the form of verbal abuse, is very deleterious for her blood pressure control”

Dr. Slosky wrote that Black, “has significant hypertension…  her blood pressure is quite labile and reactive to stressful conditions. It is particularly sensitive to acute and direct confrontation… The patient should not be subject to harassment of this kind.” And the neurologist, Dr. Eric Maas, wrote, “any undue stress should be minimized given Black’s medical history particularly with regard to hypertension and her vascular disease,” and that “had been undergoing a great deal of stress stemming from her responsibilities as Director of Summerfest in Milwaukee and her contract negotiations,” and he requested “that these factors be taken into account in planning these negotiations with Elizabeth.”

In July 2003, the committee voted not to renew Black’s contract.  On August 6, 2003, Mrs. Black filed a disability claim with Standard Insurance Company. Black sent a letter to the board of directors, stating that she was unable to perform her duties and that doctors had advised her that she could no longer work that her condition had been worsened by her job activities and stress.

Standard reviewed medical records from Dr. Griffin and Dr. Slosky and Dr. Michael Deeken, Black’s psychiatrist. They also received an ‘attending physician statement’ from Dr. Griffin, stating that he had advised her to stop working as of 2003, and that she is unable to control her blood pressure.  On visits to Dr. Slosky on August 2001, July 2002, and July 2003, records revealed that Black’s health was stable, with the exception of poorly controlled hypertension.

Dr. Slosky wrote a letter to the Standard  Insurance Company, stating that that Black should cease working due to poor blood pressure control and the “potential for aneurysm enlargement/dissection.”  Her psychologist, Dr. Deeken also submitted a statement that Mrs. Black had a diagnosis of depressive disorder and anxiety disorder.  Adding more evidence to her case, Mrs. Black submitted a copy of the Social Security Administration’s approval of her disability benefits.  She had been considered disabled due to aortic disorders and anxiety disorders by the SSA, and was considered disabled by another disability insurance company, from which she had additional coverage.

Standard denied Mrs. Black’s claim for disability benefits, stating there was not enough evidence to consider her disabled under the plan.  However, she appealed the denial, including additional letters from her doctors, who stated that Black had experienced fatigue and concentration problems.  She also submitted letters from friends and family that had witnessed her concentration and memory problems.  Standard then consulted four physicians, who took a look at Black’s medical records and evidence.  Each of them concluded that Black was not disabled, while Dr. Fraback (one of the reviewing doctors) suggested Standard consult a cardiologist, which they did.

Two cardiologists,  Drs. Kent Williamson and Storm Floten reviewed the charts.  Dr. Williamson noted that while stress may reduce the risk of an aneurysm rupture, that Black’s condition could be managed with medication and that since her scans had not shown any significant change, there was no solid evidence that she was unable to work.  Dr. Floten gave his opinion that Black’s aneurysm had not been affected by her job and that the “descending aorta has not enlarged significantly in the last three years.”

Both had concluded that she was not disabled.  Dr. Gwinnell, a psychiatrist was consulted by Standard, who reviewed Black’s claim and stated that her complaints of fatigue and cognitive difficulties was not supported by her medical records.  On January 2005, Black took the case to the district court, where she was ruled against.  She appealed again to the United States Court of Appeals to the Seventh Circuit.

Black’s case was reviewed; specifically the fact that Standard denied Black while the SSA approved her.  It was found that the medical information given to the SSA was not the same information given to Standard, and therefore, that Standard was not opposing the SSA, but that the cases were completely different.  The court also found that the physician’s reports were conflicting and shifted to support Black’s disability claim. The court therefore supported the district court’s decision to rule for Standard.

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