Is there an advantage to filing an ERISA disability lawsuit after the expiration of the 45 day deadline and before the disability insurance carrier makes a decision on an ERISA Appeal?

Yes, as it can change the “standard of review” a court must apply at trial from the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review to a “de novo” standard, which in turn increases the chances of success at trial.

Arbitrary and Capricious Standard in Disability Insurance Cases and Discretionary Clause

In the majority of ERISA governed long term disability policies, the insurance company adds a “discretionary clause” (although more States are banning these clauses), which allows, the insurance company what amounts to free rein to interpret the provisions of its policy. This in turn means that at trial the “standard or review” with which the court will determine entitlement to benefits will be under an “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review. Under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review the plaintiff must prove (1) that they are disabled from a medical condition and (2) that the insurance carrier acted “arbitrary and capricious” (unreasonable) in denying the claim. As we have discussed in numerous videos and articles, this latter step is where most insurance companies prevail, as it does not seem to take much for a court to determine an insurance company gave a reasonable review of a claim. In short arbitrary and capricious is a bad thing for claimants.

HOWEVER… and the De Novo Standard of Review

In insurance carrier’s failure to provide a response to an appeal within the 45 day timeframe (in the absence of tolling of time to review or a proper request for an extension) allows an insured to file lawsuit under ERISA predicated upon 29 C.F.R. § 256.503-1(f), which reads in part:

“[A] claimant shall be deemed to have exhausted the administrative remedies available under the plan and shall be entitled to pursue any available remedies under section 502(a) of the Act…”

The reason for this is to protect a claimant by insuring that the administrative appeals process does not go on indefinitely.

So what happens when you file a lawsuit based upon a failure to make a timely decision? Your claim could be reviewed under the de novo standard of review. Under a “de novo” standard of review the ultimate question of disability is limited to whether or not the Judge feels that the insured is disabled under the terms of the policy. This takes away the deference a judge must give to the review conducted by the insurance company under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review. Thus the de novo standard of review is a great thing for disability claimants.

The Courts Agree With The Need to File A Timely ERISA Lawsuit

In a recent Pennsylvania federal court decision in the matter of Dibartola v. The United States Steel and Carnegie Pension Fund (“Pension Fund”), the Court eludes to how important the timing of the filing of a lawsuit can be. In the Dibartola case, the plaintiff was denied disability benefits under the Pension Fund and ultimately filed an ERISA appeal of the denial. Following the submission of the appeal, the Pension Fund did not render a decision on the claim within the 45 day deadline imposed by ERISA. However, instead of filing lawsuit immediately on account of same, Dibartola waited until after a final decision to deny the benefit was rendered by the Pension fund. This spelled the difference between an “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review and the much more favorable “de novo” standard. The Court states in its opinion:

“If Plaintiff had chosen to proceed prior to the administrative determination denying benefits, and thus filed suit under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a), on the basis of the Plan’s failure to comply with 29 C.F.R. § 256.503-1(f), the Court’s standard or review, according to sister Courts of Appeals, would be de novo…”

However, Plaintiff chose not to file suit after the period of time under § 2560-503-1(f) had arguable expired. Instead, she chose to await a decision from the Plan… [W]hen a claimant makes the choice to wait for a determination from a plan instead of filing suit as permitted by section 2560.503-1(l), the Court is require to apply an arbitrary and capricious standard of review.

This is not to say that even if Dibartola had filed suit immediately after the expiration of the deadline that the court would have found her disabled even under the de novo standard of review. However, it is to say that Dibartola would have had a much better chance of success of prevailing at trial. It should be noted that this firm did not represent Dibartola nor were we involved in any way in the case.

What We Learn

The Courts take the deadlines imposed by ERISA very seriously and failure to file a lawsuit when it is ripe could have a detrimental effect on your claim for benefits. If your claim for long term disability has been denied or your insurance company has not responded to your appeal, please feel free to contact Attorneys Dell and Schaefer for a free consultation to determine how we may be able to assist you. Hiring an experienced ERISA disability attorney can be the difference between collecting and not collecting.

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FAQ

Do you work in my state?

Yes. We are a national disability insurance law firm that is available to represent you regardless of where you live in the United States. We have partner lawyers in every state and we have filed lawsuits in most federal courts nationwide. Our disability lawyers represent disability claimants at all stages of a claim for disability insurance benefits. There is nothing that our lawyers have not seen in the disability insurance world.

What are your fees?

Since we represent disability insurance claimants at different stages of a disability insurance claim we offer a variety of different fee options. We understand that claimants living on disability insurance benefits have a limited source of income; therefore we always try to work with the claimant to make our attorney fees as affordable as possible.

The three available fee options are a contingency fee agreement (no attorney fee or cost unless we make a recovery), hourly fee or fixed flat rate.

In every case we provide each client with a written fee agreement detailing the terms and conditions. We always offer a free initial phone consultation and we appreciate the opportunity to work with you in obtaining payment of your disability insurance benefits.

Do I have to come to your office to work with your law firm?

No. For purposes of efficiency and to reduce expenses for our clients we have found that 99% of our clients prefer to communicate via telephone, e-mail, fax, GoToMeeting.com sessions, or Skype. If you prefer an initial in-person meeting please let us know. A disability company will never require you to come to their office and similarly we are set up so that we handle your entire claim without the need for you to come to our office.

How can I contact you?

When you call us during normal business hours you will immediately speak with a disability attorney. We can be reached at 800-682-8331 or by email. Lawyer and staff must return all client calls same day. Client emails are usually replied to within the same business day and seem to be the preferred and most efficient method of communication for most clients.

Reviews

Bruce R. (Arizona)

Steve Dell has done an exceptional job with my disability application process. The firm is extremely well managed. They have acquired an incredible amount of experience over many years. I recommend them for disability insurance claims without reservation. 

Don (Florida)

I called this firm a few months ago completely disparaged due to a company cutting off disability benefits at a time that nearly caused me to lose everything.

Attorney Alex Palmera and Danielle worked hard to reach an amicable settlement and my case was settled a few months later. This is a good firm and the specific expertise in disability claims saved me countless hours of hassle at a time when an already fragile state existed.

Thank you Mr. Palamara and Danielle.

Sandra B. (Arkansas)

I have nothing but good things to say about how my buyout was handled with my disability claim. The level of professionalism was amazing. All of my questions and concerns were answered either by Danielle L. or Alex P. in such a timely manner and with such care I would recommend them in a heartbeat to anyone needing to approach their provider with buyout options.

They did a fantastic job communicating between the provider and me, always keeping my best interest at heart and always answering my many many questions. They really did take most of the stress out of this whole situation. I would give them a 10 out of 10 for every step of this crazy journey. Thank you so much for helping me through this.

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