Eighth Circuit Addresses Termination of Disability Benefits

On December 27, 2021, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Roehr v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada (“Sun Life”), a case involving Sun Life’s termination of long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits of Dr. Todd Roehr, an anesthesiologist who developed intermittent tremors in his hands and finger. Sun Life terminated Roehr’s ERISA LTD benefits as of January 27, 2017, after they paid him the benefits for nearly ten years on the grounds that Roehr had failed to provide proof of disability. Although Roehr lost his challenge with Sun Life’s internal appeal process as well as with the district court initially, the Eighth Circuit overturned the district court’s decision and directed the court to order the reinstatement of Roehr’s LTD benefits. The Eighth Circuit determined that Sun Life abused its discretion by terminating Roehr’s benefits based substantially on the same medical records as when Sun Life found him continuously disabled for ten years and without new significant evidence.

Roehr worked as a board-certified anesthesiologist in Iowa for twelve years before he began experiencing intermittent tremors in both of his hands and fingers. Because he has a strong family history of Parkinson’s disease, he was greatly concerned that his tremors could expose his patients to a risk of paralysis, serious injury or even death. As a result of his concern, Roehr stopped working as an anesthesiologist and applied for LTD benefits under the “own occupation” provision of his employer’s plan underwritten by Sun Life.

He consulted three separate neurologists regarding his condition, and all the neurologists ruled out Parkinson’s disease, though none of them could provide a definitive diagnosis. Nevertheless, Sun Life approved Roehr’s disability claim and paid him benefits of $10,000 per month for nearly ten years before deciding to terminate his benefits in late 2017 with the reason that he was fit to return to work.

In November 2017, Sun Life retained an independent neurologist to review Roehr’s file. The neurologist concluded that the medical evidence did not preclude Roehr from returning to his occupation as an anesthesiologist. Sun Life then terminated Roehr’s claim based on some of the reasons which had long existed with Roehr’s claim, although Sun Life never challenged these reasons previously.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that, while Roehr had a responsibility to provide the medical evidence necessary to substantiate his claim, “a plan administrator’s reliance on the same evidence to both find a disability and later discredit that disability does not amount to a reliance on ‘substantial evidence.’” The court found that Sun Life’s decision was “nothing more than a sudden change of heart on essentially the same record after almost a decade — and with no notice to Roehr prior to his benefits’ termination.” Consequently, Sun Life had left Dr. Roehr “without any meaningful opportunity to respond or seek other treatment.”

The key takeaway from the Roehr decision is that while an initial approval of benefits is not a guarantee of ongoing payment, disability insurers and plan administrators need to be cautious when they terminate benefits in the absence of new findings because it may require “substantial evidence” to terminate the disability benefit payments.

Plan administrators of disability benefits should be aware of this court’s decision.

Roehr v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada »