Brende v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER denying 23 Motion for Summary Judgment; denying 25 Motion for Summary Judgment. The case is remanded to Defendant Reliance for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. Signed by Chief District Judge Julie A Robinson on 9/22/2017. (ydm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
KELLY DEAN BRENDE,
Case No. 15-9711-JAR-TJJ
RELIANCE STANDARD LIFE
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiff Kelly Dean Brende brings the present action pursuant to the Employee
Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et. seq., alleging that
Defendant Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company (“Reliance”) improperly denied her long
term disability benefits under an employer provided disability plan. This matter is before the
Court on the parties’ Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment (Docs. 23, 25). Defendant also filed
a Motion in Limine (Doc. 23). For the reasons explained in detail below, both parties’ motions
are denied and the claim is remanded for further administrative review.
Standards of Review
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates “that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact” and that it is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”1
In applying this standard, the Court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).
in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.2 This legal standard does not change where,
as here, the Court is ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, as each party has the burden
to establish its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. 3
B. Review of Adverse Benefits Determination
As this Court has acknowledged, however, summary judgment standards are not totally
suited to the Court’s review of the administrative record in an ERISA action.4 In this case, the
parties do not ask the Court to determine whether material issues of fact remain for trial, but
instead seek review of an administrative record to determine whether Reliance reasonably denied
Plaintiff’s claim.5 The Court’s task is to act “as an appellate court and evaluate[ ] the
reasonableness of a plan administrator of fiduciary’s decision based on the evidence contained in
the administrative record.”6
A district court reviews denial of ERISA benefits under a de novo standard “unless the
benefit plan gives the administrator or fiduciary discretionary authority to determine eligibility
for benefits or to construe the terms of the plan.”7 Where, as here, the plan administrator has
discretion to determine eligibility for benefits and to construe plan terms, then the court reviews
City of Herriman v. Bell, 590 F.3d 1176, 1181 (10th Cir. 2010).
Alt. Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1148 (10th Cir. 2000).
See Meyer v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of Am., 96 F. Supp. 2d 1234, 1244 (D. Kan. 2015); McNeal v. Frontier
AG, Inc., 998 F. Supp. 2d 1037, 1040–41 (D. Kan. 2014).
McNeal, 998 F. Supp. 2d at 1040 (citing, inter alia, Olenhouse v. Commodity Credit Corp., 42 F.3d 1560,
1579 & n.31 (10th Cir. 1994)).
LaAsmar v. Phelps Dodge Corp. Life, Accidental Death & Dismemberment & Dependent Life Ins. Plan,
605 F.3d 789, 796 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989)).
the administrator’s actions under a “deferential standard of review.”8 Under this standard, a
court reviews the administrator’s decision for abuse of discretion.9
The Tenth Circuit “treats the abuse-of-discretion standard and the arbitrary-andcapricious standard as ‘interchangable in this context,’ and ‘applies an arbitrary and capricious
standard to a plan administrator’s actions.’”10 Under this standard, “review is limited to
determining whether the interpretation of the plan was reasonable and made in good faith.”11
The plan administrator’s decision will be upheld “so long as it is predicated on a reasoned
basis.”12 “[T]here is no requirement that the basis relied upon be the only logical one or even the
superlative one.”13 Rather, courts ask only “whether the administrator’s decision resides
somewhere on a continuum of reasonableness—even if on the low end.”14 “Consequently, the
Tenth Circuit has observed that the arbitrary and capricious standard is a difficult one for a
claimant to overcome.”15
The parties agree that the arbitrary-and-capricious standard applies to the benefits
determination at issue in this case. However, in Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Glenn,16 the
Supreme Court held that when an ERISA fiduciary is responsible for making benefits
determinations and is also the party responsible for paying claims, an inherent, dual-role conflict
Metro Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 544 U.S. 105, 111 (2008) (quoting Firestone, 489 U.S. at 111).
See Foster v. PPG Indus., Inc., 693 F.3d 1226, 1231 (10th Cir. 2012).
Id. at 1231–32 (quoting Fought v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of Am., 379 F.3d 997, 1003 & n.1 (10th Cir. 2004)
(per curiam), abrogated on other grounds by Glenn, 544 U.S. at 118)).
Euguene S. v. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.J., 663 F.3d 1124, 1134 (10th Cir. 2011).
Adamson v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 455 F.3d 1209, 1212 (10th Cir. 2006).
Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
Berges v. Standard Ins. Co., 704 F. Supp. 2d 1149, 1174 (D. Kan. 2010) (quoting Nance v. Sun Life
Assurance Co. of Can., 294 F.3d 1263, 1269 (10th Cir. 2002)).
554 U.S. 105 (2008).
of interest exists.17 The presence of such a conflict does not alter the standard of review, but
courts consider the conflict as a factor in determining whether the plan administrator has abused
its discretion in denying benefits.18 The significance of the factor will depend on the
circumstances of the particular case.19 Glenn stated that:
[t]he conflict of interest . . . should prove more important (perhaps of great
importance) where circumstances suggest a higher likelihood that it affected the
benefits decision, including, but not limited to, cases where an insurance company
administrator has a history of biased claims administration. . . . It should prove
less important (perhaps to the vanishing point) where the administrator has taken
active steps to reduce potential bias and to promote accuracy, for example, by
walling off claims administrators from those interested in the firm finances, or by
imposing management checks that penalize inaccurate decisionmaking
irrespective of whom the inaccuracy benefits.20
Here, the parties do not dispute that the Plan grants the Plan Administrator discretion to
determine eligibility for benefits, including resolving factual disputes and interpreting and
enforcing Plan provisions. Reliance contends that its review process provided Brende multiple
opportunities to address all substantive issues: 1) Brende’s appeal of the decision was submitted
to a separate and independent Reliance unit that was in no way involved in the initial claim
determination as is required by ERISA; 2) Reliance obtained an independent peer review; 3)
Reliance obtained two independent medical examinations; and 4) Reliance provided Brende an
opportunity to comment on the independent medical examination reports prior to making its
determination. Brende does not argue that Reliance’s administrative review involved
irregularities that cast doubt on the integrity of its claims procedures. The circumstances of the
Id. at 114.
Id. at 105.
Id. at 117 (citations omitted).
case do not suggest that Reliance’s conflict of interest impacted the benefits determination and
the Court finds that the conflict carries limited weight.
In ERISA cases seeking review of a denial of ERISA benefits, the Court’s review is
“limited to the administrative record,” i.e., the materials compiled by the ERISA plan’s
administrator in the course of making its decision.21 Thus, any evidence presented to the Court
on summary judgment motions in this type of ERISA case is limited to the administrative record.
At the same time, the Court notes that its review of the facts is not necessarily limited to the facts
that the parties set forth in their briefs as the “uncontroverted facts.” In reviewing the
administrative record in this case to determine whether Defendant’s decision to deny Plaintiff
benefits was arbitrary and capricious, the Court should consider whether “substantial evidence”
supported the decision.22 Whether evidence is “substantial” must be “evaluated against the
backdrop of the administrative record as a whole.”23 Thus, in ruling on the parties’ summary
judgment motions, the Court must evaluate the entire administrative record and not just those
particular facts the parties reference from the administrative record in their respective briefs.
Statement of Facts
Kelly Dean Brende has been employed as a partner with the law firm Swanson Midgley
since 2005. The firm provided its employees with a long term disability (“LTD”) insurance
policy, Policy Number LTD115875 (the “Policy”). Reliance administers the Policy and is the
claims review fiduciary.
Holcomb v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 578 F.3d 1187, 1192 (10th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted).
Hancock v. Metro Life Ins.Co., 590 F.3d 1141, 1155 (10th Cir. 2009).
Adamson v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 455 F.3d 1209, 1212 (10th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
Brende was classified as a Class 1 employee, for which the Policy defines “Totally
Disabled” “as the result of an Injury or Sickness, during the Elimination Period and thereafter for
which a Monthly Benefit is payable, an Insured cannot perform the material and substantial
duties of his/her Regular Occupation.”24 The Policy defines “Sickness” to mean “illness or
disease causing Total Disability which begins while insurance coverage is in effect for the
Insured.”25 The “Elimination Period” is a period of 90 consecutive days that begins on the first
day of Total Disability and for which no benefit is payable.26 “Material and substantial duties” is
not defined in the Policy. “Regular Occupation” is defined as “the occupation the insured is
routinely performing when Total Disability begins . . . as it is normally performed in the normal
economy and not the unique duties performed for a specific employer or in a specific locale.”27
When a Total Disability is “caused by or contributed to by mental or nervous disorders,”
then monthly benefits “will not be payable beyond an aggregate lifetime maximum duration of
twenty-four (24) months.”28 “Mental or Nervous Disorders” include, but are not limited to,
depressive and anxiety disorders.29
The Policy contains the following discretionary language:
Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company shall serve as the claims review
fiduciary with respect to the insurance policy and the Plan. The claims review
fiduciary has the discretionary authority to interpret the Plan and the insurance
policy and to determine eligibility for benefits. Decisions by the claims review
fiduciary shall be complete, final and binding on all parties.30
Administrative Redord (“AR”) 12.
AR 9, 11.
Monthly Benefits are payable if an Insured, among other things, “submit[s] satisfactory proof of
Total Disability to [Reliance].”31
Plaintiff’s Medical Treatment
On September 11, 2012, Plaintiff noticed that the toes on her left foot were numb, and
initially attributed the sensation to a pinched nerve from running ten miles the previous day. The
following day she became dizzy and experienced the numbing and tingling had spread to her left
side.32 Brende was evaluated at St. Luke’s Emergency Department on September 12, 2012, after
complaining of a headache and dizziness.33 A CT study of Brende’s brain that day revealed,
“Negative noncontrast CT of the brain”; a MRA and MRI of her head was “unremarkable; a
MRA of her neck stated: “Impression: No evidence of carotid or vertebral artery stenosis.”34
Brende did not return to work, and her last day of full-time employment was September 12,
On September 14, 2012, Brende was evaluated by Jennifer Bernard of St. Luke’s Health
System for an emergency room follow-up visit pertaining to her complaints of a headache; Dr.
Bernard expressed concern that Brende may have experienced a migraine headache.35 An
October 4, 2012, MRI of Brende’s cervical spine performed at St. Luke’s revealed no disc bulge
or herniation, nor was there evidence of spinal canal stenosis, neural foraminal narrowing,
masses, or lesions.36 An October 26, 2012 MRI of Brende’s head was unchanged and
Brende then consulted Dr. Arthur Allen, a neurologist, on November 2, 2012. In his
treatment notes, Brende reported reduced strength and stamina; on examination, her strength was
normal in both her upper and lower extremities.38 Dr. Allen stated that he “[c]annot identify a
lesion in the lower brainstem or upper cervical cord that would explain her subjective
sensorimotor symptomatology. The only objective findings include altered responses to pinprick
and temperature over the left scalp, thoracic region, arm and leg.”39 Dr. Allen referred Brende to
the Mayo Clinic as he could not identify the cause of her symptoms, which had then been present
for over fifty days.40
In November 2012, Brende was evaluated by Dr. Joseph Matsumoto of the Mayo Clinic.
After “review[ing] all her films as noted, [he saw] no abnormalities,” and his diagnosis was
numbness and weakness of an uncertain cause.41 In a December 7, 2012 letter to Dr. Allen, Dr.
Matsumoto wrote that he was unable to determine the cause of Brende’s numbness and
weakness, and noted that the tests performed on her were normal, concluding:
I discussed with the patient that we have not found anything ominous. I told her
the good news is that after such an extensive set of testing as has been performed
by Dr. Allen in Kansas City and added to by our workup that it seems unlikely
that she has any severe organic problem causing her numbness. I think this is
very reassuring. I will write her again after I get the trigeminal blink reflex.42
In an addendum to the report, Dr. Matsumoto noted that the blink reflex text results were
On December 21, 2012, Dr. Allen completed the attending physician portion of the
disability claim application, stating that Brende experienced numbness and tingling in her left
arm and leg, dizziness, unable to sit or drive more than one to three hours, unable to walk or
stand at all, and unable to work at a sedentary level.44 He responded that Brende’s ability to
perform “complex and varied tasks” was “moderately limited.”45
On January 16, 2013, Dr. Jennifer Bernard evaluated Brende at St. Luke’s for “multiple
complaints,” including severe dizziness, left upper and lower extremity pain, headaches, fatigue
and numbness that Brende characterized as “debilitating.”46 Following her examination, Dr.
Bernard wrote that all tests were normal except the history of present illness as reported by
Brende.47 She prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug, anti-migraine medication, and an opioid
pain medication.48 At a subsequent examination on February 13, 2013, Dr. Bernard reported
normal findings, despite Brende’s continued complaints of headaches, numbness, difficulty
focusing, and “periods where she can’t do anything.”49
At a follow-up examination on March 13, 2013, Dr. Bernard recorded Brende’s
complaints, including upper extremity weakness, dizziness, and difficulty focusing.50 After a
physical examination, Dr. Bernard reported normal findings, including no muscle weakness. 51
She recommended a prescription for the antidepressant Lexapro or Celexa, “since stress makes
symptoms worse,” but Brende refused medication at that time.52
On March 28, 2013, Brende was evaluated by Dr. Allen for complaints of numbness,
tingling, pressure, and weakness on her left side.53 Dr. Allen reported that the cause of Brende’s
complaints remained “unclear.”54
On June 27, 2013, Brende was seen by Dr. Jeanne Drisko at the University of Kansas
Medical Center Integrative Health Department.55 Dr. Drisko noted the stressful year Brende had
leading up to the onset of her health issues, stating “[i]t is very likely that there was some sort of
a physical crash and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction is strongly suspected.”56
Dr. Drisko suggested further testing to evaluate Brende’s neurotransmitter levels and adrenal
function, as well as an EEG based neuro map to look at the possibility of a right-sided
abnormality or the possibility of seizure activity, given Brende’s description of her numbness
and tingling sensations along the left side of her body.57
Brende’s symptoms did not abate, and she continued to meet with Dr. Allen and Dr.
Drisko at regular intervals throughout 2013 and 2014. On August 9, 2013, Dr. Allen evaluated
Brende.58 After summarizing her complaints, he noted that Brende had withdrawn from her
church and involvement in parent activities at her childrens’ school and that she was unable to
work.59 After a physical examination of Brende, he noted her muscular development, strength,
and gross fine motor coordination were normal, and that she reported that even the most
sedentary of activities drained her of energy.60
Brende was evaluated by Dr. Drisko on August 23, 2013, who noted that Brende had
been evaluated at the Mayo Clinic and that the “test results did not help in establishing a care
plan and there were no recommendations that could be made.”61 She further noted that Dr. Allen
is considering a PET scan of Brende’s brain.62 That brain scan on September 17, 2013 provided
“no evidence of stroke or neurodegenerative disease.”63
On September 27, 2013, the Social Security Administration denied Brende’s claim for
Social Security disability benefits.64
On October 28, 2013, Dr. Allen completed an “Attending Physician’s Statement” for
Reliance, and reported a diagnosis of numbness and tingling in Brende’s left aft and leg and a
brain stem lesion.65 Dr. Allen stated Brende’s prognosis was “stable,” and when asked about her
ability to function in areas of daily activity and ability to return to work, selected as the best
answer option: “[t]here is a degree of neurological impairment, but there is ability to carry out
most of activities of daily living as well as pre-morbid state.”66
Dr. Allen completed another Physician’s Statement on November 13, 2013, which
reported Brende’s diagnosis as fatigue, headache, and left hemisensorimotor dysfunction, and
experiencing dizziness, disequilibrium, photophobia, and sonophobia.67 Dr. Allen indicated that
Brende was irritable and depressed, and that her prognosis was “guarded” as there was no
specific treatment because the etiology of her complaints was unknown.68 When presented with
the same multiple choice options regarding Brende’s ability to function that appeared in the form
he completed the month prior, Dr. Allen selected as the best answer: “[d]aily activities need
some supervision and/or direction,” and elaborated that Brende cannot practice law.69
Brende saw Dr. Drisko on November 27, 2013.70 Dr. Drisko noted that Brende’s
complaints persisted and that she “[c]ontinues with severe malaise and nonrestorative sleep.
Unable to attend to activities of daily living.”71 Dr. Drisko further noted that Brende “had a
history of situational depression and anxiety related to her illness, but no lifelong history of
Brende returned to Dr. Drisko in January 2014, for a follow-up visit after a gallbladder
procedure and to discuss her future plans.73 Dr. Drisko stated that Brende reported that she was
“feeling somewhat better,” with improved energy and modest improvement in daily activities.74
Brende continues to have left-side facial weakness and numbness “if she over functions and gets
Reliance’s Finding of Disability and Review of Benefits
On February 22, 2013, Reliance approved Brende’s application for LTD benefits, and
paid benefits retroactively, beginning December 10, 2012.76
On May 8, 2013, Barbara Finnegan, a nurse employed by Reliance, reviewed Brende’s
medical records and noted the normal scans and laboratory studies.77 Finnegan also noted
Brende’s positive clinical examination based on her self-reported complaints before concluding
that Brende lacked consistent work function.78
On December 31, 2013, Nurse Finnegan reviewed Brende’s file to assess her continuing
eligibility for LTD benefits. Finnegan found that “[t]here is a degree of neurological
impairment, but there is ability to carry out most activities of daily living as well as pre-morbid
state. Lack of consistent work function remains supported.”79 Finnegan determined that
additional medical records were necessary, especially Dr. Allen’s report of a brain lesion.80
Reliance approved Brende’s benefits through July 1, 2014.
On June 5, 2014, Dorothy McGarry, R.N., reviewed Brende’s updated file to assess her
continuing eligibility for LTD benefits. After considering Brende’s activity level and evidence
of stress factors before determining that the cause of Brende’s symptoms remained unclear,
McGarry concluded that “lack of consistent work function is supported ongoing,” and opined
that there “appears to be a psychogenic contribution to her impairment since the date of loss, and
On July 14, 2014, at Reliance’s request, Dr. Francis Bellino, a board certified family
physician, reviewed Brende’s medical records. Dr. Bellino noted the absence of any diagnosis
for Brende’s symptoms and the fact that her physician related her symptoms to stress, concluding
There is no support in physical findings for her complaints of weakness.
The symptoms with which Ms. Brende presented would not be impairing
to any occupation that did not require vigorous physical activity. There is
no manner in which the symptoms of numbness and tingling would impair
any level of physical activity. The level of activities described by Ms.
Brende would not be consistent with impairment due to fatigue from a
non-physically vigorous occupation.82
Relative to Brende’s cognitive status, Dr. Bellino noted:
There is no alleged cognitive impairment in the file. Ms. Brende
described that she was able to work with a client for 1.5 hours in August
2013, since she was the only member of the law firm who had past
knowledge. This would demonstrate a high level of cognitive function.
Fatigue is alleged to be impairing; however, the described activities are
inconsistent with both the opined restrictions/limitations (Allen) and
impairment from a non-physically vigorous occupation.83
Dr. Bellino also stated that it was “plausible that [a] mental nervous condition is the
underlying cause of her condition,” and expressed doubt about Dr. Drisko’s methods.84
Initial Denial of Disability
On October 20, 2014, Reliance notified Brende that it would discontinue benefits
effective December 10, 2014.85 Relying in part on Nurse McGarry’s report and Dr.
Bellino’s assessment, Reliance determined Brende’s “Total Disability is caused by or
contributed to by a Self-reported disorder.”86 Reliance cited the Mental or Nervous
Disorders policy provision with a maximum duration of benefits of twenty-four months.87
Reliance explained its determination by citing to Nurse McGarry’s “medical review” of
her file wherein she concluded Brende’s condition has a “psychogenic contribution,” and
her symptoms were related to a “stressful year.”88 After Nurse McGarry’s review,
Reliance explained it had Dr. Bellino evaluate her file to determine if her diagnosis had
any physical impairment in addition to her “mental/nervous disorder.”89 Reliance stated
that Dr. Bellino indicated that Dr. Allen’s assessment that her strength and stamina are
unable to sustain a sedentary activity is inconsistent with actual activity; that fatigue is
reported but vague; that in view of the lack of anatomic or physiological explanation for
her symptoms, it is plausible that a mental or nervous condition is the underlying clause;
and there is no support in physical findings for Brende’s complaints of weakness.90
Brende timely appealed Reliance’s initial denial, disputing Reliance’s determination that
her claimed disability was caused or contributed to by a mental or nervous disorder, as well as
taking issue with Dr. Bellino’s report.91 Brende stressed that no mental or nervous disorder was
diagnosed by Nurse McGarry or Dr. Bellino, as required by the cited Policy provision.92 Brende
provided Reliance a psychiatric evaluation report from Dr. Scott Jones, who conducted a
psychological evaluation of Brende on February 17, 19, and 20, 2014.93 Dr. Jones concluded
that Brende had “no indication for any psychiatric care,” and “she is psychologically doing very
well managing her stressful medical situation.”94 Brende’s GAF score was 80, and Dr. Scott
recommended continued neurological treatment with Dr. Allen.95
On April 15, 2015, at Reliance’s direction, Dr. Jeffery Kaplan reviewed Brende’s medical
records and performed an independent medical examination.96 Based on the medical records, Dr.
Kaplan identified as the conditions impacting Brende’s status: (1) indeterminate left-sided
weakness and numbness, (2) headaches with some aspects consistent with migraine, (3) dizziness
and (4) skin sensitivity possibly consistent with allodynia [fibromyalgia].97 Dr. Kaplan found no
medical data during his examination that would substantiate the conditions, but also found no
evidence of malingering.98 Dr. Kaplan found one abnormality upon examination that correlated
with Brende’s complaints: sensory changes on the left side of her body.99 He noted that “[i]t is
important to note that these sensory changes are subjective, and therefore cannot be reliably
confirmed.”100 He further noted that “I believe this patient has an underlying impairment due to
skin sensitivity, headaches, dizziness, and left-sided numbness. This is based solely on
symptoms and subjective examination findings. Even if a substantial portion of her symptoms
are psychological in etiology, they are still causing her impairment.”101 He opined that this
impairment does not prevent Brende from doing “sedentary” work.102 Specifically, Dr. Kaplan
found that Brende was capable of frequent sitting and occasional standing and walking consistent
with sedentary level work.103
On April 29, 2015, chiropractor Dr. Koko Husain provided to Reliance her written
opinion of Brende’s condition.104 Dr. Husain opined that Brende had brachial neuritis, thoracic
outlet aggravation, and possibly a subtle form of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Dr. Husain
commented on Brende’s blood tests that displayed a mutation causing decreased methylation,
anemia, vitamin deficiencies, and possible adrenal fatigue.
On May 5, 2015, at Reliance’s direction, psychiatrist Dr. Edwin Levy performed an
independent psychiatric examination of Brende and completed a psychiatric assessment form.105
In a narrative report dated May 9, 2015, Dr. Levy discussed the medical records he reviewed and
his examination of Brende, before considering her ability to function in a work environment.106
Dr. Levy’s diagnosis of Brende stated:
No diagnosis has been made of the symptom complex presented in 9/12. I make
no psychiatric diagnosis at this time. Neither of these statements correlates with
the clinical findings of her condition. This seems like an empty conclusion, but I
think it simply points toward the likelihood of an eventual diagnosis in the
With respect to his recommendations for treatment, Dr. Levy went on to state,
I think the chronicity of her problems has brought things to the point where
psychotherapy is now indicated. This is not because she is or has been
‘psychiatrically sick.’ It is because she has been and continues to be heavily
burdened. It is to keep her going on in healthier ways. It would work best if she
could want it, could see it as a growth opportunity. It could not be forced.108
With respect to Brende’s current psychiatric functional ability in a work environment, Dr. Levy
With a GAF of 80, limitations of this sort are not expected to be encountered. Her
inability to function in a work environment is caused by the undiagnosed
syndrome. Judgments regarding work limitation would best be made by her
neurologist. However, she is not able to move fast and where she needs to go
through complexity after complexity and interruption after interruption.109
On May 6, 2015, Dr. Allen provided a letter in which he ruled out migraine headaches,
stated that “[t]hough there has been limited improvement in strength and stamina so that she can
function some of the time as a homemaker and mother, she has not been able to perform any
duties of her previous occupation as an attorney in the area of estate planning and tax law,” noted
Brende’s continued complaints of numbness and tingling of the left arm and leg, and commented
that he believed Brende’s fatigue and malaise were “the more disabling of the two issues as she
lacks strength and stamina and has increased sleep requirement which prevent her from
functioning.”110 Dr. Allen stated his diagnoses include: 1) numbness and tingling of the left arm
and leg; 2) fatigue/malaise; 3) headache in the back of the head; and 4) dysphagia (trouble
On June 16, 2015, Dr. Kaplan was provided the following additional records: Dr. Allen’s
May 6, 2015 letter; the office visit record from Dr. Allen dated May 4, 2015; and the letter from
Dr. Husain dated April 29, 2015. Dr. Kaplan stated that review of the records did not change his
April 15, 2015 opinion regarding Brende’s capabilities.112
On July 22, 2015, Brende prepared a response to Dr. Kaplan’s report, taking issue with
several of his statements.113 Brende indicated that she did not believe Dr. Kaplan adequately
described symptoms she relayed to him during the appointment. She indicated that “briefly
resting” entailed resting for one to two hours several times during the day. She also stated Dr.
Kaplan misunderstood her regarding the issue of fatigue, specifically, she does not get “sleepy,”
but rather, her symptoms increase to such a point that she cannot function and she needs to lay
down for one to two hours before she has the strength to continue any activities. Finally, Brende
relayed she thought there was a “disconnect” with the way Dr. Kaplan presented himself during
the appointment and the report he provided, specifically, said he would pray for her and
expressed empathy for her condition. In response, Dr. Kaplan prepared an addendum to his
report, addressing Brende’s statements, indicating her condition had profoundly affected her life,
and affirming his opinion that she is capable of only sedentary work.114
In July 2015, Reliance hired Marshall Investigative Group to surveil and investigate
Brende. On August 6, 2015, at the end of its investigation, the Group provided Reliance with a
summary of its observations, including that Brende did not leave her home for the three days for
which she was surveilled.115
Reliance Upholds Claim Decision
On September 11, 2015, Reliance issued a letter denying Brende’s appeal (“Final Denial
Letter”).116 After summarizing her administrative file, Reliance determined that (1) the record
no longer supports her claim that the symptoms are disabling; and (2) assuming arguendo the
Mental and Nervous Disorders policy provision applies to Brende’s claim, it prohibits the
payment of additional benefits.117 Reliance went on to state that the evidence did not support a
finding of disability based on a psychiatric or physical impairment, suggesting that Brende was
never entitled to any benefits: “As Ms. Brende is not physically impaired or psychiatrically
impaired, and as she received LTD benefits under the Mental or Nervous Disorder provision, it
appears [Reliance] has overpaid Ms. Brende LTD benefits.”118
This cause of action followed.
A. Physical Disability
The parties agree that Plaintiff bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the
evidence that she is totally disabled, and thus entitled to LTD benefits under the terms of the
Plan.119 Reliance argues that there is no objective support for Brende’s claims that she lacks the
physical ability to perform her sedentary occupation, while Brende argues that Reliance
unilaterally and improperly added an objective medical evidence requirement to her burden of
proof, and lacked substantial evidence in making its determination that she could perform her
Regular Occupation as an attorney.
See Swanson v. Unum Life Ins. Co., No. 13-4107-JAR, 2015 WL 339313, at *10 (D. Kan. Jan. 26, 2015).
1. Objective Evidence
The Plan defines “Total Disability” to mean “that as a result of an Injury or Sickness,
during the Elimination Period and thereafter for which a Monthly Benefit is payable, an Insured
cannot perform the material and substantial duties of his/her Regular Occupation.120 The Plan
thus defines “disability” not in terms of satisfaction of specific diagnostic criteria or objective
medical proof of an illness, but rather in terms of the performance limits a claimant faces in her
occupation due to any sickness or injury. Accordingly, Brende must demonstrate by a
preponderance of the evidence that she is unable to perform the material and substantial duties of
In its Initial Denial Letter, Reliance advised Brende that the documentation provided
indicated that her Total Disability is caused by or contributed to by a “Self-reported disorder,”
specifically, a skin sensation, that is subject to the Mental or Nervous Disorders limitation.121
Reliance explained that a medical review by a nurse stated that her condition has a “psychogenic
contribution” and her symptoms were related to a “stressful year.”122 Reliance had Dr. Bellino
evaluate her file to determine if her diagnosis had any physical impairment in addition to her
mental/nervous disorder, and he concluded that it is plausible that mental nervous condition is
the underlying cause and there is no physical evidence supporting her complaints of weakness.
In its Final Denial Letter, Reliance justified its denial in part, because Brende’s “[s]ensory
change on the left side of her body are subjective and cannot be reliably confirmed. No
neurologic disorder has been identified to explain her symptoms.”123
The record in this case indicates Brende suffers from an undiagnosed condition
characterized by numbness, dizziness, weakness, and fatigue. Brende’s condition appears to
share a feature with conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, in that its
symptoms are entirely subjective. As this Court previously noted in Swanson v. Unum Life
Insurance Co. of America, “[s]uch conditions have presented difficulties for insurers and courts
evaluating disability claims.”124 “[C]ourts have held that plan administrators may reasonably
require objective evidence of the occupational limitations caused by a claimant’s condition, even
if the condition itself cannot be diagnosed through objective means.”125 Such balancing has
resulted in a general rule: “while a plan administrator may not reasonably demand objective
medical evidence of a condition that is incapable of objective diagnosis, it may reasonably
require objective evidence that a claimant’s diagnosed condition renders her unable to perform
her occupational duties.”126 Although the Tenth Circuit has not adopted this rule in a published
decision, this Court has previously found the rule persuasive and will adopt it in its analysis of
this case as well.127
As explained in Swanson,
This “objective evidence requirement,” moreover, does not require claimants to
submit evidence that does not exist. Courts have found that objective evidence of
occupational limitations may be provided through tests of claimants’ physical
strength, stamina, or mental ability. Psychiatric evaluations, for example, may
show whether claimants struggle to concentrate or interact with others in a
positive manner. And courts routinely rely on the results of “functional capacity
evaluations” to test a claimant’s actual ability to perform physical tasks such as
sitting, standing, walking, lifting, and reaching. Because those tests turn not on
claimants’ reporting of subjective symptoms, but rather on demonstrated ability to
perform work-related tasks, they constitute objective evidence of disability.
2015 WL 339313, at *9 (citing Welch v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 382 F.3d 1078, 1087 (10th Cir.
Id. (collecting cases).
Id. (collecting cases).
Defendant was entitled to require such, or similar, objective evidence in this
Brende argues that by requiring objective evidence of her symptoms and condition,
Reliance imposed an objective medical evidence requirement pursuant to a condition not present
in the Policy. Brende focuses on the language in the Final Denial Letter, where Reliance stated
“[s]ensory change on the left side of her body are subjective and cannot be reliably confirmed.
No neurologic disorder has been identified to explain her symptoms.”129 But this language is
cited in isolation; the entire paragraph in the Final Denial letter states:
Based on a review of Ms. Brende’s complete file, we have determined that her
physical conditions would not prevent her from performing work function. Ms.
Brende is capable of performing her Regular Occupation as an attorney, which is
classified as a sedentary exertion level occupation.
In order to qualify for continuing LTD benefits, the medical evidence must show
that your client’s conditions prevent her from performing her Regular Occupation.
You must show that that symptoms from her conditions are in fact disabling, in
accord with the terms of the Policy. The record reveals that Ms. Brende has full
bulk strength in all 4 extremities with normal tone. Sensory changes on the left
side of her body are subjective and cannot be reliably confirmed. No neurologic
disorder has been identified to explain her symptoms. The record reveals that Ms.
Brende is able to care for her three children, prepare meals, and attend school
Moreover, we note that Ms. Brende’s treating neurologist, Dr. Allen, has
consistently found Ms. Brende to have full strength and good motor coordination
in all extremities.130
Thus, under Swanson, it was well within Reliance’s discretion to require objective evidence that
Brende lacked the ability to engage in work as an attorney.
Id. (internal citations omitted).
2. Regular Occupation
Nevertheless, the Court finds that Reliance’s decision was unreasonable because it failed
to consider Brende’s actual job duties in defining her regular occupation. Under the Policy, an
insured is disabled when he or she “cannot perform the material and substantial duties of his/her
Regular Occupation.” “Regular Occupation” is defined as “the occupation the Insured is
routinely performing when Total Disability begins. We will look at the Insured’s occupation as
it is normally performed in the national economy, and not the unique duties performed for a
specific employer or in a specific locale.”131
In its Final Denial Letter, Reliance concluded that Brende’s limitations and restrictions
did not physically preclude her from working as an attorney, which is classified as a sedentary
exertion level occupation.132 Reliance’s Occupational Data document specifies the strength
requirements for an attorney as “Sedentary. Lifting, Carrying, Pushing, Pulling 10 Lbs.
occasionally. Mostly sitting, may involve standing or walking for brief periods of time.”133 The
Data document also states physical demands include reaching, handling, fingering, talking,
hearing, and near acuity.134 Work situations include dealing with people, influencing people in
their opinions, attitudes, and judgments, and making judgments and decisions.135 Non-physical
aptitudes include general learning ability, verbal aptitude and numerical aptitude above the 89th
AR 478 (emphasis added).
percentile.136 Tasks include conducting research, client contact, preparing written legal
argument, preparing for trial, and interpreting law.137
When an ERISA plan defines disability in terms of whether a claimant is unable to
perform the material functions of his or her job, “it is essential that any rational decision to
[deny] disability benefits . . . consider whether the claimant can actually perform [his or her]
specific job requirements.”138 The Tenth Circuit has recognized that a denial of benefits is
arbitrary and capricious if premised on medical reports that fail to consider one or more of the
claimant’s essential job functions.139
Accordingly, the Court concludes that Reliance’s Final decision to deny Brende LTD
benefits was arbitrary and capricious because it addressed only one aspect of her occupation, the
general sedentary nature of the work. Reliance failed to address that at a minimum, the
substantial and material duties of an attorney include non-physical tasks, demands, and aptitudes,
including research, client contact, and frequent near acuity. These omissions are troubling,
particularly because it was Reliance’s own Occupational Data document that specifies these nonphysical tasks, which are clearly the focus of Brende’s claimed disability. Indeed, Brende has
never denied that she is sometimes capable of normal physical exertion; rather, it is sensory
dysfunction, cognitive impairment, fatigue, and malaise that she alleges prevent her from
Moreover, the record contains several sources of evidence that concentrate on the nonphysical duties required of an attorney. Over two years of evidence reflect Brende consistently
Miller v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 632 F.3d 837, 855 (3d Cir. 2011).
Caldwell v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 287 F.3d 1276, 1285 (10th Cir. 2002); see also McDonough v. Aetna
Life Ins. Co., 783 F.3d 374, 380 (1st Cir. 2015); Miller, 632 F.3d at 854–55; Elliott v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 473 F.3d
613, 619 (6th Cir. 2006); Panther v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada, 464 F. Supp. 2d 1116, 1121 (D. Kan. 2006).
sought treatment for her symptoms. Dr. Allen assessed Brende’s limitations, finding a degree of
neurological impairment, that she was moderately limited in her ability to perform complex and
varied tasks, and more specifically, that she cannot practice law. After reviewing the medical
evidence, Dr. Levy interviewed and questioned Brende to assess her functional limitations. In
his evaluation, he identified specific limitations in the process of assessing a GAF score of 80:
Her inability to function in a work environment is cause by the undiagnosed
syndrome. Judgments regarding work limitation would be best made by her
neurologist. However, she is not able to move fast and where she needs to go
through complexity after complexity and interruption after interruption. . . . The
patient tires very easily, needs continually to rest after effort in daily life tasks,
perceives herself as weak, is in several different kinds of pain, including
paresthesia’s, gets dizzy and aches. These greatly limit her ability to do more
than basic activities of living and much of the care of her children and
maintaining a relationship with her husband.
Notably, Reliance does not mention Dr. Levy’s specific limitations in its Final Denial letter,
despite the fact that he performed an independent medical evaluation at Reliance’s behest
By contrast, the reports Reliance relies on describe Brende’s job duties as “sedentary,”
and did not discuss the effect of Brende’s impairments on the non-physical duties of her
occupation. The fact that Brende can physically perform sedentary work functions, however, is
not sufficient to meet the requirements of the profession. “On this opaque record, there is simply
no way to tell whether the reviewers were applying a correct conception of the [plaintiff’s job
duties] . . . or some other conception.”140 Without such information, the Court cannot conclude
that Reliance’s denial of benefits is predicated on a reasoned basis.141
Having determined that Reliance’s denial of LTD benefits was arbitrary and capricious,
the Court considers the proper remedy. Where, as here, a “plan administrator ‘fail[s] to make
adequate findings or to explain adequately the grounds of its decision,’” the Tenth Circuit has
McDonough, 783 F.3d at 380.
See Caldwell, 287 F.3d at 1285.
held that ordinarily “the proper remedy ‘is to remand the case to the administrator for further
findings or explanation.’”142 “A remand for further action is unnecessary only if the evidence
clearly shows that the administrator’s actions were arbitrary and capricious, or the case is so
clear cut that it would be unreasonable for the plan administrator to deny the application for
benefits on any ground.”143 The Court concludes that a remand to Reliance is the proper course
of action. This is not a case where the evidence is so one-sided as to make a remand
unnecessary. Instead, the flaw in Reliance’s decision is that it failed to make adequate factual
findings regarding Brende’s ability to perform the material and substantial duties of her job. The
Court “will not substitute [its] judgment for that of [Reliance].”144
The case is hereby remanded to Reliance for further proceedings consistent with this
opinion. Upon remand to the administrator, Reliance must provide Brende a full and fair review.
Reliance must indicate which material and substantial duty or duties of Brende must be unable to
perform as an attorney to qualify as totally disabled. This should include the duties and tasks for
attorneys set forth in the Occupational Data document beyond the general classification as a
sedentary exertion level occupation. If Reliance denies Brende’s request for LTD benefits, it
must set forth its reasons and rationale, and allow Brende to submit additional evidence
supporting her claim for physical disability benefits. After Reliance has provided its rationale
and Brende has submitted additional evidence, if any, Reliance should evaluate Brende’s claim
as it would an appeal from an initial denial of benefits.
DeGrado v. Jefferson Pilot Fin. Ins. Co., 451 F.3d 1161, 1175 (10th Cir. 2006) (alterations in original
omitted) (quoting Caldwell, 287 F.3d at 1288).
Caldwell, 287 F.3d at 1289 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
Rekstad v. U.S. Bancorp, 451 F.3d 1114, 1121 (10th Cir. 2006).
B. Mental or Nervous Disorder Limitation
The Mental or Nervous Disorders limitation describes the limitation as applying to a
disability “caused by or contributed to by mental or nervous disorders,” and defines depressive
or anxiety disorder as a mental illness.145 Brende claims that Reliance erroneously interpreted
the limitation to apply whenever a disability is caused by or contributed to by mental or nervous
disorders, regardless of whether a claimant’s depression is the result of physical symptoms or
where a psychiatric diagnosis has not been made. Reliance contends that even though Brende
has not been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition, it is clear that her psychiatric condition
contributes to the symptoms that she claims are disabling. The Court directed the parties to brief
an additional issue regarding this limitation: whether a “but-for” interpretation should apply, that
is, where a claimant is disabled by physical conditions alone, then the mere presence of a
psychiatric component does not justify application of the twenty-four month limitation.
Here, the meaning of the clause “caused by or contributed to by mental or nervous
disorders” is not self-evident. Other courts have interpreted similar mental illness limitations to
require “but-for” causation. In Okunov v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company,146 the
Sixth Circuit joined the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits in applying the “but-for inquiry” to the
same Mental and Nervous Disorders limitation at issue in this case.147 Consistent with the above
cases, the Court construes the limitation here as applying only if Brende’s mental or nervous
disorder was a but-for cause of her disability. “Thus, an application is not appropriately denied
on the basis that a mental or nervous disorder “contributes to” a disabling condition; rather, the
836 F.3d 600 (6th Cir. 2016).
Id. at 607–09 (citing George v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 776 F.3d 349, 355–56 & n.9 (5th Cir.
2015); Mauer v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co., 500 F. App’x 626, 628 (9th Cir. 2012); Gunn v. Reliance Standard
Life Ins. Co., 399 F. App’x 147, 151 (9th Cir. 2010); Michaels v. The Equitable Life Assurance Soc’y of U.S. Emps.,
Managers, and Agents Long-Term Disability Plan, 305 F. App’x 896, 898, 907–08 (3d Cir. 2009)).
effect of an applicant’s physical ailments must be considered separately to satisfy the
requirement that review be reasoned and deliberate.”148 In other words, the inquiry is whether,
but for Brende’s anxiety and depression, would she be able to work as an attorney.
In its supplemental briefing, Reliance urges its review was in accord with this but-for
framework, arguing that its consideration of Brende’s application fits squarely within the
reasoning in Okuno. Reliance claims that when the mental or nervous disorders limitation was
applied, it also determined whether Brende remained totally physically disabled. Brende
contends that while the denial letters briefly address Brende’s physical capacity, they are
insufficient to satisfy the analysis required under Okuno.
In its Final Denial Letter, Reliance detailed Brende’s medical records before explaining
that it “determined that her physical conditions would not prevent her from performing work
function.”149 After stating that “the medical evidence does not support the presence of a
neurological condition that would warrant work restrictions and limitations from a physical
standpoint,” Reliance proceeded to analyze, arguendo, that Brende’s condition was caused or
contributed to by a mental or nervous disorder, and thus the twenty-four month limitation
applied. Reliance then notes that Dr. Levy found Brende was not psychiatrically impaired, and
goes so far as to suggest that because Brende is neither physically or psychologically impaired,
she was overpaid LTD benefits. Reliance went on to conclude, “regardless of whether or not
Ms. Brende is or is not psychiatrically impaired, the fact remains that Ms. Brende is not impaired
from a physical standpoint.”150 Reliance determined there is no physical disability that entitles
Brende to disability benefits separate and apart from her mental or nervous disorder.
Okuno, 836 F.3d at 609.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that Reliance evaluated Brende’s claim consistent with the
“but for” test set forth in Okuno.
This evaluation, however, was based on the faulty premise that Brende’s symptoms did
not rise to the level that would prevent her from performing her sedentary occupation, a
conclusion the Court found arbitrary and capricious because Reliance did not consider the nonphysical/cognitive aspects of Brende’s occupation as an attorney. Because the “but for” inquiry
to the Mental and Nervous Disorders limitation excludes coverage only when the claimant’s
physical disability, separate and apart from any mental health related problems, is insufficient to
render her totally disabled, any related determination that the exclusion applies necessarily
requires a sufficient analysis of that claimed physical disability. Moreover, as Reliance asserts,
further consideration of the limitation is unnecessary if Brende is not physically disabled. Thus,
on this record, the Court cannot determine whether Reliance’s application of the limitation was
reasonable. Accordingly, the Court defers ruling on this issue pending Reliance’s consideration
on remand of whether Brende’s physical conditions prevented her from performing her material
and substantial duties as an attorney.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED BY THE COURT that Plaintiff’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. 25) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Motion in
Limine (Doc. 23) are DENIED. The case is remanded to Defendant Reliance for further
proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: September 22, 2017
S/ Julie A. Robinson
JULIE A. ROBINSON
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?