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Fibromyalgia sufferer wins denied disability claim lawsuit against Hartford

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Kristen Reetz got her benefits back after Hartford Life and Accident Insurance discontinued her LTD payments. She wasn’t better. In fact, she was sicker.

Seattle, WALong term denied disability lawsuits have a way of careening into highly technical territory about the appropriate standard of legal review or the precise process for deciding appeals. Not so with Reetz v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co. . This was an evidence case.

Hartford cut Kristen Reetz ‘s benefits off as her chronic pain got worse. She was far from able to return to work. This time, however, the LTD claimant filed a lawsuit and won.

The message for LTD claimants is that if you were awarded benefits an insurer may have a hard time taking them away unless your condition has improved. The subtext is that courts seem increasingly wary of LTD disability denials that are based on records review alone.

LTD Benefits Awarded, then Taken Away



Ms. Reetz worked for Byram Health Care, Inc. as a senior customer service representative. It was a job that required sitting for seven hours a day. She took a leave in March 2014 because of persistent pain resulting from fibromyalgia and spondyloarthropathy, a condition that causes back pain.

She began receiving short term disability benefits and was approved for LTD benefits in June 2014. In April 2016, however, the plan terminated her LTD benefits, concluding that she was able to perform the duties of her own occupation. It further, although somewhat unnecessarily, concluded that she also met the “any occupation” standard necessary for continued receipt of benefits after 24 months.

The termination of benefits was based on a review of her treating physicians’ medical records by several third party reviewers retained by Hartford. These peer reviewers did not examine Ms. Reetz and appear not to have spoken to her doctors. In fact, their conclusions about her ability to return to work were directly contrary to the conclusions of her treating physicians.

A Clear Record of Debilitating Pain



Conditions that are characterized by chronic pain can be difficult to diagnose. Sometimes the pain is better; sometimes it seems worse. Ms. Reetz, however, seems to have a remarkably consistent record of misery. Her doctors noted on several occasions that her condition appeared to deteriorate, despite a history of treatment that included:
• injections of medicine into the small joints of her lower back;
• radiofrequency neurotomy;
• surgery;
• low impact exercise; and
• treatment at a specialized pain clinic.

Various doctors noted that her limitations "should be lifelong" due to her "irreversible joint damage." Her condition was "unchanged." One doctor starkly admonished, "Don't expect any improvement."

Cleared by Hartford to go Back to Work



The insurance company’s unlikely conclusion that Ms. Reetz could return to work as a senior customer service representative was based on three things. It questioned the diagnosis of spondyloarthropathy, based on what may have been a misreading of a treating physician’s note that a particular test did not rule that diagnosis out. The peer reviewer also noted some improvement in Ms. Reetz’s functionality following knee surgery, although her knee condition was not part of her LTD application.

More central to Hartford’s termination of benefits was the fact that, at an earlier time, one of her treating physicians had indicated on a standardized form that Ms. Reetz was able to sit for four hours at one time. In a later evaluation, the doctor did not indicate (by circling a number on a scale) how many hours per day Ms. Reetz could sit. The doctor failed to circle any number. Hartford interpreted the lack of response as indicating no restriction on the total number of hours she could sit in an eight hour work day. This would have been a truly remarkable eight-fold improvement.

On the day of the determination, her doctor remarked in her notes that "Ms. Reetz cannot sit for long periods of time," and she is "still having a lot of difficulty with the combination of her lumbar issues, as well as her fibromyalgia”. The doctor specifically noted that she "did not agree with the final assessment . . . of [Ms. Reetz] being able to work full time."

The Takeaway: Persistence Paid Off in Winning LTD Claim



The decision is unusual because both parties agreed to a de novo review of the basic underlying medical evidence. The court’s determination is heavily dependent on that review, rather than the usual evaluation of the appeals process. Nonetheless, two things stand out.

The court was careful to point out that a change in the determination of whether Ms. Reetz was disabled should, logically speaking, be based on a change in facts of her medical condition. Because Hartford had awarded LTD benefits for almost two years, "one would expect the evidence to show an improvement.” There was no compelling evidence of improvement, however. There was considerable evidence to the contrary.

Secondly, although there is no need to require a physical exam by a treating physician to uphold a new decision in a de novo review, the court noted that administrators may not "arbitrarily refuse to credit" opinions of treating physicians in a review of records. The third party reviewers seemed especially cavalier in their evaluation of the existing record of Ms. Reetz’s disability.

The ultimate takeaway may be that it is possible to prevail in a wrongly denied disability claim lawsuit with persistence and a carefully developed factual record.

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READER COMMENTS


Posted by

on
I think I've had fibromyalgia for many years but was diagnosed approximately 5 years ago. I was working at Walmart and was just exhausted. Not the tiredness that sleep helps. I mean totally exhausted, with muscle pain. My primary doctor diagnosed fibromyalgia. He  prescribed Cymbalta around 4 years ago. Cymbalta was approved for Fibromyalgia treatment. Although it did relieve some of the pain, I still suffered from fatigue. November 2017  my doctor started me on Natural Herbal Gardens fibromyalgia Herbal mixture,With the help of Natural Herbal Garden natural herbs I have been able to reverse my symptoms using diet, herbs, which i feel has made the most difference. The Fibromyalgia natural formula immensely helped my condition, it reversed my Fibromyalgia. my muscle pain. And then the joint stiffness, and fatigue. gradually disappeared. Visit NATURAL HERBAL GARDENS via their official web-site www. naturalherbalgardens. com.  and i turned 69 today. i am glad to get my life back, I will keep sharing awareness DON’T GIVE UP HOPE!!!

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