A District Court Rejects Insurer’s Denial of a Long-Term Disability Claim Based Only on a Paper Review of Medical Records and Blind Adherence to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles

A “battle of the experts” is common in legal disputes.  But what happens when your doctor determines you are disabled and unable to work, while the insurer’s doctor determines you are not disabled based on a review of your medical file, leading to a denial of your claim for long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits?  Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), you may have a case for improper denial.

In a recent LTD insurance case governed by ERISA, Popovich v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 281 F.Supp.3d 993 (C.D. Cal.  2017), Judge Andre Birotte explained the limitation of a paper review of a claimant’s medical record, as well as the limitation of relying solely on the definitions of occupations in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).  Below, we discuss Popovich; why the court found the insurer’s doctor’s opinion, which was based only a paper review, to be unpersuasive; and why it is important for an insurer to determine what a claimant actually does before it bases a claim denial on the material duties of a claimant’s occupation.

In Popovich, Plaintiff Kenneth Popovich (“Popovich”) filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) and Data Analysis, Inc. Employee Benefit Plan alleging that his claim for long-term disability benefits was improperly denied.

Popovich worked as an assistant news editor for Investor’s Business Daily for ten years.  Popovich was responsible for writing and editing online news content for an organization that strived to publish stories and analysis within minutes of breaking news, creating significant deadline pressure.  During his tenure working for Investor’s Business Daily, Popovich suffered a heart attack.  He went on medical leave for 16 months to have bypass surgery and recover.  He returned to work but continued to suffer from poor health.

Popovich went on another medical leave 11 months after returning to work.  His second medical leave was less than two months before he returned to work on a part-time basis.  Popovich returned to full-time work two weeks later, but after only two more months he was unable to complete his regular shift due to his poor health.  That turned out to be his last day of work.

A couple of days later, Popovich saw his attending physician, Dr. Kedan, who indicated that Popovich suffered from a great deal of stress and panic attacks.  Dr. Kedan diagnosed Popovich with cardiomyopathy, and advised Popovich to stop working.  Dr. Kedan advised Popovich that he could eventually return to work, but his return to work date was unknown.  Popovich filed a claim for LTD benefits based on Dr. Kedan’s diagnosis and physician statement.

MetLife’s medical director and nurse consultant reviewed Popovich’s medical records, noted improvement in specific tests conducted on Popovich and opined that Popovich should be capable of sedentary work.  MetLife’s claim specialist recommended denial of Popovich’s claim based on insufficient evidence to support disability.  A few days later MetLife completed a vocational analysis using only the description of the news editor occupation in the DOT, and denied Popovich’s LTD claim.

Popovich continued to be in poor health following the claim denial.  Dr. Kedan recommended further treatment, stating that Popovich’s heart damage made him unfit for physical labor, and that he was not a good candidate for other sedentary jobs either because he suffered from chest pains while seated and exerting himself.  Dr. Kedan concluded that Popovich was unable to resume any type of gainful employment.

Popovich appealed MetLife’s denial.  MetLife then referred Popovich’s appeal to Dr. Sassower, an independent physician consultant who is board certified in cardiology. Dr. Sassower spoke with Dr. Kedan and reviewed Popovich’s medical records, but did not examine him.  In his “paper review” report, Dr. Sassower concluded that Popovich’s test results should not have prohibited his return to work.  MetLife accordingly upheld its prior denial of Popovich’s claim for long-term disability benefits.

In this case, the dispute came down to whether Popovich’s heart condition was sufficiently severe to prevent him from working in his usual occupation.  The court ruled in favor of Popovich, ordered MetLife to pay his long-term disability benefits owed under the plan for the initial two years, together with prejudgment interest, and ordered MetLife to determine if Popovich met the plan’s criteria to continue receiving benefits beyond the initial benefit period.

The court ruled in Popovich’s favor for two main reasons.  First, the court concluded that Dr. Sassower’s opinion was not persuasive because he only conducted a “paper review” of Popovich’s medical records and his report had several critical issues.

While Dr. Sassower is not required to examine Popovich in person, his report, based on a pure paper review, presented several critical issues.  For example, Dr. Sassower misstated the diagnosis of Popovich’s heart disease in his medical records, and failed to cite any evidence to support a different, or new, diagnosis.  Furthermore, Dr. Sassower selectively interpreted medical reports in Popovich’s file.  He relied on certain reports to question the accuracy of some tests, but ignored the same reports when arguing that other tests were not sufficient to demonstrate disability.  Additionally, Dr. Sassower was the only doctor in Popovich’s medical records to criticize Popovich’s medication regimen.  It was not clear from the record that Popovich’s medication regime was lacking, as Dr. Sassower so claimed.

Finally, Dr. Sassower failed to explain why some of his conclusions differ from other doctors in the medical records.  He did not provide evidence or reasoning to support his different conclusions.  Taken all together, the court found Dr. Sassower’s opinion unpersuasive.  The court found that Popovich’s medical records, including reports from Dr. Kedan and other specialists, demonstrated Popovich suffers from a significant heart condition, and that Popovich is unable to work at a physically and mentally stressful occupation.

Second, the court determined that MetLife did not perform a reasoned and deliberative vocational analysis because it only relied on the DOT’s description of a news editor.  To determine if a claimant is able to work in their usual occupation, an insurer must conduct a reasoned and deliberative vocational analysis about the material duties of the claimant’s job.  MetLife’s vocational analysis consisted solely of a verbatim reproduction of the DOT’s description of a news editor.  The court noted that reference to the DOT is generally reasonable, but explained that the DOT’s description is outdated as it relates to this case.  The DOT’s entry for news editor refers only to duties relevant to print media, and Popovich worked in a deadline-driven environment trying to publish stories and analysis online within minutes of breaking news.  The DOT description of news editor and the reality of Popovich’s job as a news editor are fundamentally different.  The court therefore found that MetLife erred by relying solely on the DOT and failing to consider what Popovich actually did before determining the material duties of Popovich’s occupation.  Furthermore, MetLife’s blind reliance on the DOT limited its analysis to physical requirements of the job and failed to consider mental requirements.  The court used Popovich’s, and his employer’s, description of news editor over the DOT’s description to define Popovich’s usual occupation.

After reviewing the entire Administrative Record, the court found Popovich submitted sufficient evidence to demonstrate he is disabled from working in stressful occupations.  The court further found that Popovich’s usual occupation as an assistant news editor is stressful.  The court thus concluded that Popovich was totally disabled from his usual occupation, and entitled to LTD benefits.

As detailed above, a pure paper review of a claimant’s medical records by the insurer’s doctor may not be enough to undermine a treating physician’s medical opinion.  And an insurer reliance solely on the definition of a job from the DOT to determine material duties of a claimant’s usual occupation may not be a sufficient vocational analysis.

With this in mind, if your claim for long-term disability benefits is denied and the insurer did not conduct a medical exam, you may have a case of improper denial.  Likewise, if an insurer makes a determination about the material duties of your usual occupation without someone talking to you or your employer, you may have a case of improper denial.

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