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Long COVID disability court battles just ‘tip of iceberg’


A growing number of long COVID patients, denied disability benefits despite being unable to work, are turning to the courts for legal relief.

At least 30 lawsuits have been filed seeking legal resolution of disability insurance claims, according to searches of court records. In addition, the Social Security Administration said it has received about 52,000 disability claims tied to SARS-CoV-2 infections, which represents 1% of all applications.

But legal experts say those cases may not reflect the total number of cases that have gone to court. They note many claims are initially dismissed and are not appealed by claimants.

“With this system, they deny two-thirds of initial applications, then people who appeal get denied almost 90% of the time, and then they can appeal before a judge,” said Kevin LaPorte, a Social Security disability attorney at LaPorte Law Firm in Oakland, Calif. “What happens next doesn’t have a lot of precedent because long COVID is a mass disabling event, and we haven’t seen that many of these cases get all the way through the legal system yet.”

As a result, the exact number of long COVID disability claims and the number of these cases going to court isn’t clear, he said.

“It can take a year or more for cases to get to court, and even longer to reach resolution,” Mr. LaPorte added. “I suspect the few cases we’ve heard about at this point are going to be the tip of the iceberg.”

The process is convoluted and can drag on for months with multiple denials and appeals along the way. Many disabled workers find their only recourse is to take insurers to court.

Long COVID patients typically apply for disability benefits through private insurance or Social Security. But the process can drag on for months, so many find their only recourse is to take insurers to court, according to legal experts.

But even in the courts, many encounter delays and hurdles to resolution.

In one of the first federal lawsuits involving long COVID disability benefits, William Abrams, a trial and appellate attorney and active marathon runner, sued Unum Life Insurance seeking long-term disability income. Symptoms included extreme fatigue, brain fog, decreased attention and concentration, and nearly daily fevers, causing him to stop working in April 2020.

His diagnosis wasn’t definitive. Three doctors said he had long COVID, and four said he had chronic fatigue syndrome. Unum cited this inconsistency as a rationale for rejecting his claim. But the court sided with Mr. Abrams, granting him disability income. The court concluded: “Unum may be correct that [the plaintiff] has not been correctly diagnosed. But that does not mean he is not sick. If [the plaintiff’s] complaints, and [the doctor’s] assessments, are to be believed, [the plaintiff] cannot focus for more than a few minutes at a time, making it impossible for [the plaintiff] to perform the varied and complex tasks his job requires.”

Unum said in an emailed statement that the company doesn’t comment on specific claims as a matter of policy, adding that its total payouts for disability claims from March 2020 to February 2022 were 35% higher than prepandemic levels. “In general, disability and leave claims connected to COVID-19 have been primarily short-term events with the majority of claimants recovering prior to completing the normal qualification period for long-term disability insurance,” Unum said.

Mr. Abrams prevailed in part because he had detailed documentation of the numerous impairments that eventually required him to stop work, said Michelle Roberts of Roberts Disability Law in Oakland, Calif.

He submitted videos of himself taking his temperature to prove he had almost daily fevers, according to court records. He underwent neuropsychological testing, which found learning deficiencies and memory deficits.

Mr. Abrams also submitted statements from a colleague who worked with him on a complex technology patent case involving radiofrequency identification. Before he got COVID, Mr. Abrams “had the analytical ability, legal acumen, and mental energy to attack that learning curve and get up to speed very rapidly,” according to court records.

“The court focused on credulity.” Ms. Roberts said. “There was all this work to be done to show this person was high functioning and ran marathons and worked in an intense, high-pressure occupation but then couldn’t do anything after long COVID.”

Documentation was also crucial in another early federal long COVID disability lawsuit that was filed in 2022 on behalf of Wendy Haut, an educational software sales representative in California who turned to the courts seeking disability income through her company’s employee benefits plan.

Several of Ms. Haut’s doctors documented a detailed list of long COVID symptoms, including “profound fatigue and extreme cognitive difficulties,” that they said prevented her from working as a sales representative or doing any other type of job. A settlement agreement in June 2022 required Reliance Standard Life Insurance to pay Ms. Haut long-term disability benefits, including previously unpaid benefits, according to a report by the advocacy group Pandemic Patients.

Representatives of Reliance Standard didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The growing number of workers being sidelined by long COVID makes more claims and more court cases likely. Right now, an estimated 16 million working-age Americans aged 18-65 years have long COVID, and as many as 4 million of them can’t work, according to a July 2023 Census Bureau report.

Uncertainty about the volume of claims in the pipeline is part of what’s driving some insurers to fight long COVID claims, Ms. Roberts said. Another factor is the lack of clarity around how many years people with long COVID may be out of work, particularly if they’re in their 30s or 40s and might be seeking disability income until they reach retirement age.

“Doctors are not always saying that this person will be permanently disabled,” Ms. Roberts said. “If this person doesn’t get better and they’re disabled until retirement age, this could be a payout in the high six or seven figures if a person is very young and was a very high earner.”

Insurance companies routinely deny claims that can’t be backed up with objective measures, such as specific lab test results or clear findings from a physical exam. But there are steps that can increase the odds of a successful claim for long COVID disability benefits, according to New York–based law firm Hiller.

For starters, patients can document COVID test results, and if testing wasn’t conducted, patients can detail the specific symptoms that led to this diagnosis, Hiller advises. Then patients can keep a daily symptom log at home that run lists all of the specific symptoms that occur at different times during the day and night to help establish a pattern of disability. These logs should provide specific details about every job duty patients have and exactly how specific symptoms of long COVID interfere with these duties.

Even though objective testing is hard to come by for long COVID, people should undergo all the tests they can that may help document the frequency or severity of specific symptoms that make it impossible to carry on with business as usual at work, Hiller advises. This may include neuropsychological testing to document brain fog, a cardiopulmonary exercise test to demonstrate chronic fatigue and the inability to exercise, or a tilt table test to measure dizziness.

Seeking a doctor’s diagnosis can be key to collecting disability payments, in or out of court.

All of this puts a lot of pressure on doctors and patients to build strong cases, said Jonathan Whiteson, MD, codirector of the NYU Langone Health post-COVID care program in New York. “Many physicians are not familiar with the disability benefit paperwork, and so this is a challenge for the doctors to know how to complete and to build the time into their highly scheduled days to take the time needed to complete.


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