Federal judge OKs class action status for suit against Unum Group

A federal judge Tuesday granted class-action status to a lawsuit that contends Unum Group, the nation’s largest disability insurer, schemed to deny or terminate claims of thousands of disabled Americans.

Jim Sabourin, a spokesman for the Chattanooga-based company, described the order as “procedural.” He said “it has nothing to do with the merits” of the 2003 lawsuit. The suit contends Unum Group violated the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, in claims handling, partly by creating secret documents in which non-medical employees set a “target date for cutting off future disability payments.”

The lawsuit was filed before 2004, when insurance regulators in 49 states agreed to settle an investigation of Unum Group’s claims handling, Sabourin said. That agreement required Unum Group, formerly UnumProvident, to reconsider about 200,000 claims and pay a $15 million fine. The company in March changed its name to Unum Group, which includes subsidiaries Unum Life Insurance Co. of America, Paul Revere Life Insurance Co., Unum National Insurance Co., and Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co.

Sabourin said the company as part of the 2004 agreement is almost finished reassessing claims denials and terminations. “It’s a procedural ruling focused solely on class certification,” Sabourin said. “The relief sought is exactly what we have been doing in the reassessment process through the past two years.” He said that of the reassessed claims “about 30 percent” of the initial decisions were changed.

The order signed by U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier shows the suit was filed by seven plaintiffs who are “insured under group long-term disability benefit plans’ policies underwritten and managed by UnumProvident’s subsidiaries.”

The plaintiffs contend the company denied more than 31,000 new claims from June 30, 1999 to the date of the suit filing and that at least 6,200 plan beneficiaries were “subjected to defendants’ alleged illegal claims practice.”

Collier in the class action order said “plaintiffs have not requested monetary relief. What they have requested is `declaratory relief determining the illegality of the conduct alleged and injunctive relief whereby UnumProvident and its subsidiaries are ordered to immediately cease, in all states of the United States of America, engaging in the offending practices.'”

Collier said that if the claims are proven true “some plaintiffs” may receive monetary relief. Unum shares rose 48 cents to $24.95 on the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday.