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Hannagan v. Piedmont Airlines

March 31, 2010

MICHAEL F. HANNAGAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PIEDMONT AIRLINES, INC.; GROUP LONG TERM DISABILITY, LIFE AND SUPPLEMENTAL LIFE PLAN FOR EMPLOYEES OF ALLEGHENY AIRLINES, INC.; AND THE HARTFORD LIFE AND ACCIDENT INSURANCE COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

On August 1, 2007, Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. ("ERISA"), seeking injunctive relief and money damages resulting from Defendant Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company, Inc.'s ("Hartford") denial of his long term disability ("LTD") insurance claim.

Currently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

Defendants allege that they are entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that (1) Plaintiff is prevented from working as a pilot not because of any disability but because his license to fly was suspended; and (2) Plaintiff failed to prove that Defendant Hartford's decision was arbitrary and capricious. Plaintiff alleges that he is entitled to summary judgment because Defendant Hartford abused its discretion in denying his LTD benefits claim in that he was disabled from flying as that term is defined under the Policy.

II. BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff, a former pilot for Defendant Allegheny Airlines, Inc., asserts a claim for LTD benefits under Group Insurance Policy Number GLT-674138 ("the Policy") that Defendant Hartford issued to Defendant Allegheny Airlines, Inc. Specifically, Plaintiff seeks payment of LTD benefits under the Policy from November 19, 2005, through November 19, 2007, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B).

Plaintiff began his employment with Allegheny Airlines, Inc. in 1986 and stopped working on November 17, 2004, for alleged health reasons.*fn2 See Administrative Record ("AR") at 77. In December of 2004, Plaintiff began treatment with Dr. Allen Miller.*fn3 Dr. Miller diagnosed Plaintiff with obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD") and treated him with an antidepressant medication called Zoloft. Thereafter, Plaintiff was further diagnosed as having an allergy to unknown substances, which causes an anaphylactic reaction and requires him to carry an EpiPen at all times. Due to these diagnoses and treatment, Plaintiff failed his FAA-required annual medical examination and, accordingly, had his pilot's license suspended. See AR at 18.

On October 6, 2005, Plaintiff submitted an application for LTD benefits, asserting that his diagnosis of OCD and anaphylaxis rendered him disabled pursuant to the Policy's terms. Defendant Hartford denied Plaintiff's claim, stating that he was not "disabled" under the Policy because it was not the symptoms of his condition that prevented him from performing the essential duties of his occupation, but merely the medication he took because of his disorder.*fn4

Plaintiff appealed, and Defendant Hartford again denied his claim.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Summary judgment standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 authorizes the federal courts to enter summary judgment against a party where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). In assessing the record to determine whether any such issues of material fact exist, the court is required to resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 36 (2d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

B. Standard of Review of an ERISA plan Administrator's Decision to Deny Benefits

Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), a court reviews the denial of benefits under a de novo standard unless the insurance plan provides that the administrator or fiduciary has discretionary authority to construe the terms of the plan or to determine the applicant's eligibility for benefits. See Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). When the policy provides the administrator or fiduciary with such discretion, the court "will not disturb the administrator's ultimate conclusion unless it is 'arbitrary and capricious.'" Pagan v. NYNEX Pension Plan, 52 F.3d 438, 441 (2d Cir. 1995) (quotation and other citations omitted).

In the present case, the Policy grants Defendant Hartford "full discretion and authority to determine eligibility benefits and to construe and interpret all terms and provisions of the Group Insurance Policy." See Affidavit of Giuseppina Gulino sworn to June 26, 2008 ("Gulino Aff."), at Exhibit "A" ("Policy"), at 16. Accordingly, the Court will only disturb Defendant Hartford's decision if it was arbitrary and capricious.

C. The Policy

The Policy provides LTD benefits for eligible employees of Defendant Allegheny Airlines, Inc. during periods that such employees are "disabled," as the Policy defines that term.

An employee becomes eligible for LTD benefits after the Elimination Period prescribed in the Policy and remains eligible as long as the claimant provides Defendant Hartford with satisfactory proof of ...


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