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Ricca v. Prudential Insurance Company of America

September 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ludwig, J.


This is an action for judicial review of an administrator's denial of disability insurance benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq.; see § 1132(a)(1)(B). Jurisdiction is federal question. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e); 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Plaintiff Michelle Ricca, a former employee of Carlson Holdings, Inc., moves for summary judgment to recover long-term disability benefits under a group disability insurance policy issued to Carlson by defendant The Prudential Insurance Company of America. The policy is an employee welfare benefit plan governed by ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1).

Prudential cross-moves for summary judgment. Both motions will be denied. Prudential's refusal of benefits was unreasonable and an abuse of its discretion as plan administrator. Nevertheless, genuine issues of material fact remain as to plaintiff's entitlement to the benefits in question. Accordingly, this action will be remanded for further proceedings.

Plaintiff, now 56 years old, was injured in a motor vehicle accident on April 12, 2004.

Compl. ¶ 16; Certification of Eric J. Konecke (Cert. Konecke), Ex. A. TGI Friday's, a Carlson company, employed plaintiff as its director of operations. At that time she was a participant under Group Disability Insurance Policy, Number GO-63871-MN, issued to Carlson by Prudential. Id. at ¶¶ 7, 8-9; PRU000363-431, 375-77.*fn1 Because of her injuries, plaintiff stopped working on April 21, 2004. Compl. ¶ 16, Cert. Konecke, Ex. A.

In November 2004, plaintiff applied to Prudential for long-term disability insurance benefits, asserting that as of April 21, 2004, she was unable to work because of neck and back pain, muscle spasms, and other injuries sustained by her in the accident. PRU000265-74. On January 17, 2005, Prudential denied her claim. PRU000349-352. On June 29, 2005, plaintiff filed an administrative appeal, and on August 24, 2005, Prudential upheld its original denial of benefits. PRU000106-09, 333-37. On February 20, 2006, plaintiff filed a second administrative appeal, and on May 8, 2006, Prudential again upheld its original denial. PRU000050-60, 314-17. On January 15, 2008, having exhausted her administrative remedies, plaintiff filed this action for judicial review. On May 26, 2010, oral argument was heard on the parties' cross-motions. According to the parties' "Joint Summary of Issues," the "sole issue is whether Prudential's determination that [plaintiff] was not disabled under the 'regular occupation' definition [of the Policy], based upon the administrative record, was arbitrary and capricious." Id. at 2.

Prudential, as the Policy plan administrator, has sole responsibility for determining eligibility for benefits. Here, Prudential found that plaintiff was able to perform "the material and substantial duties of her regular occupation" and was, therefore, not disabled as defined by the Policy. See Policy, PRU000390. Prudential also decided that plaintiff had not been "continuously disabled" for 180 days, as required by the Policy's "elimination period," and therefore, she was not eligible for benefits. See id. at PRU000391. Plaintiff asserts that she satisfied the elimination period because she was continuously disabled from April 21, 2004 through October 17, 2004. Comp. ¶ 17, Cert. Konecke, Ex. A.

The medical evidence of record, as developed by Prudential's claims administration department, reflects that plaintiff was treated by two physicians and a social worker after her April 2004 accident -- John E. Moskaitis, M.D., plaintiff's primary care physician who coordinated her specialists and ordered diagnostic tests, Nancy R. Shanahan, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, and Lee Ann Hartwell, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

Dr. Moskaitis treated plaintiff from April 13, 2004 to June 4, 2005. PRU000092-97, 215-28. Although Dr. Moskaitis's records may be difficult to read in places, they clearly disclose the following findings and conclusions. On April 13, 2004, the day after plaintiff's accident, x-rays of her right knee, cervical spine, and right wrist and shoulder revealed "moderate [cervical] degenerative changes with prominent osteophyte formation at C5-6 and some minimal impingement intervertebral foramina bilaterally." PRU000232. That same day, Dr. Moskaitis found that plaintiff had severe neck and lower back pain, muscle spasms, and a reduced range of motion. PRU000269. He concluded that she could not perform heavy lifting or sit for long periods of time. Id. His diagnosis was that she had renal contusions and trapezius myositis. PRU000228. On May 10, 2004, at Dr. Moskaitis's request Dr. Shanahan performed both an EMG and a nerve conduction velocity study on plaintiff. PRU000255-57. On October 11, 2004, Dr. Moskaitis stated in a prescription note that plaintiff was "out of work indefinitely [and that] she has sprain & strain of the lumbar sacral spine & cervical spine and renal contusions." PRU000216. On January 4, 2005, Dr. Moskaitis recorded that she had low back pain. PRU000217.

At times, he prescribed pain medications, including Vioxx and Percocet. PRU000070, 74. On February 16, 2005, his conclusions were: plaintiff was limited to one hour of sitting, standing, and walking in an eight-hour day, with adjustments to her position every fifteen minutes; she could lift five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally; and she could carry five pounds occasionally but at no times ten pounds -- and she could not use her right hand to grasp, push and pull, or do fine manipulation and could not use her right foot repetitively to operate controls. PRU000093-94.

On June 6, 2005, Dr. Moskaitis reported that plaintiff continued to receive treatment for her neck and back pain, and surgery on both wrists was being scheduled for carpal tunnel syndrome. PRU000097. He believed an MRI performed on May 16, 2005, "show[ed] a progression of the degeneration of the cervical spine." Id. On June 22, 2005, Dr. Moskaitis filled out a medical form, stating that, based on objective medical findings, plaintiff suffered from severe pain that interfered with her ability to concentrate on job tasks, sleep, perform daily activities, and maintain relationships with others. PRU000092. In his opinion, these findings demonstrated that plaintiff could not return to work. PRU000097.

On May 10, 2004, during a visit to Dr. Shanahan, plaintiff complained that since her accident, "her entire right side fe[lt] heavy" and she had "an echo in her right ear." PRU000255-57. Dr. Shanahan believed plaintiff's nerve conduction velocities and distal latencies were within normal limits. Id. She noted a borderline abnormal difference between the right radial and medial distal latency, which showed a "very minimal amount of sensory carpal tunnel syndrome." Id. She further noted C5-C6 radiculopathy on plaintiff's right side. Dr. Shanahan recommended physical therapy for plaintiff's complaint of a decreased range of motion in her neck. Id.

Plaintiff participated in physical therapy with NovaCare Rehabilitation from May 25, 2004 until she was discharged on August 3, 2004. PRU000179-97, 214, 229-30. Plaintiff's condition, as noted on discharge, was that her lumbar spine was better but her neck pain persisted, although it had ...

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