Gregory Eaton worked as an inventory clerk at Premier
Transportation. His job duties included
sitting, standing, walking, lifting heavy objects, and electronically entering
Eaton filed a claim for LTD benefits with Reliance Standard
Life Insurance Company because of an injury occurring on July 20, 2007.
Reliance Standard initially approved Eaton’s claim for LTD
benefits early the next year. Near the end of thirty-six months, Reliance
Standard informed Eaton that it needed more information to ensure that Eaton
remained “Totally Disabled” after March 18, 2010. But Eaton never responded.
Reliance Standard ultimately terminated Eaton’s LTD benefits
for his failure to submit satisfactory proof of Total Disability. Eaton timely
submitted a written request for review.
Eaton explained that his back pain was still persistent and
was interfering with his sleep. He also explained that “he cannot walk any”
because of his limping and that his “left side [is] progressively getting
worse.” Eaton, on another section of the form, stated again that he was “[b]arely
able to walk” and that his “left leg drags.” He had to “sit for long periods of
time” and his “tail bone/nerve goes dead,” He claimed the ability to drive a
couple times a week, but no more than 40 to 50 miles. Eaton wrote that he
attended occasional Jeep Club meetings as a guest of a friend. He also claimed
to be unable to hunt or fish because of his pain.
During March and April 2016 Reliance Standard hired an
investigator to conduct surveillance on Eaton. The investigator observed Eaton
on March 19, 2016, driving to a Jeep Club meeting and then driving to a
restaurant with the group. Eaton “displayed the ability to use both arms as he
carried items and took pictures with his phone above his head.” On April 1,
2016, the investigator observed Eaton “loading drinks, pillows, blankets, and
other camping items into the Jeep and then strapping] down the loose items in
the trailer.” He “displayed the ability to use both arms, bend at his waist and
raise his legs to hip height as he had to step over the trailer hitch multiple
times.” Eaton was preparing for a camping trip at an off-road park in Alabama.
On May 24, 2016, Reliance Standard terminated Eaton’s LTD
benefits based on a culmination of information. The letter noted:
On the [Activities of Daily Living]
Form completed by you on 8/18/15, you reported that you were barely able to
walk, a drag of the left leg, and that it is hard to sit for long periods of
time due to the tail bone nerve going dead. In addition, you noted difficulties
driving and sitting as a passenger. You indicated you can only drive 40-50
miles; as a passenger, you could potentially travel longer (70-100 miles) so
long as there is space to lie. Additionally, on the same ADL Form mentioned above,
you stated that you sometimes attend a Jeep Club every few months as a friend’s
guest to talk about Jeeps. Surveillance
was conducted over the course of several days, where it was found that you are
the Secretary of the Mid-South Jeep Club. You were observed to be driving your
vehicle on the off-road trials ... [S]everal YouTube videos you have posted
show your ability to drive among the conditions of off-roading trials.
Surveillance also showed your ability to ambulate without a foot drag, stand for
periods of time, and bend at the waist. Medical Records from Dr. Webb note that
pain is consistent, but is dulled by medications.
Eaton argued that Reliance Standard’s denial of his LTD
benefits was not the product of a principled and deliberate reasoning process
because Reliance Standard relied on “a series of videotapes taken by a private
investigator who was employed by [Reliance Standard] to do unauthorized
surveillance of [Eaton].”
The federal district court observed that there is no case
law that prohibits a plan administrator from conducting surveillance of a
claimant, nor was there any language in the Policy that prohibited Reliance
Standard from gathering surveillance videos. In fact, case law suggests that
surveillance by plan administrators is routine, and courts have approved the
use of surveillance footage in determining whether a claimant is disabled.
The court found that Reliance Standard utilized the
surveillance footage properly. A plan administrator was not required to ignore
the inconsistencies between Eaton’s assessment of his level of activity and the
videotape of those activities. That being said, the inconsistencies still had
to be more than minor. They were.
Here, the court found that Reliance Standard did not base
its decision to terminate Eaton’s LTD benefits solely on the surveillance
footage. While it was undeniable that the video footage played a role-- perhaps
a significant role-- in Reliance Standard’s decision, it was not improper. Reliance
Standard noticed a discrepancy between Eaton’s 2015 Activities of Daily Living
Form and Dr. Rizk’s Independent Medical Evaluation, which prompted Reliance
Standard to request surveillance.
One surveillance video showed Eaton attending a MidSouth
Jeep Club meeting, a club for which he was actually the Secretary. He drove
himself and his wife to the meeting. After the meeting, he and his wife arrived
at a restaurant and remained there for around two hours. While at the
restaurant, the video showed Eaton standing for extended periods of time,
walking, raising his arms to take photos of the group, and smoking a cigarette.
The April 2016 surveillance footage also revealed more than
minor inconsistencies. On one day, the surveillance footage showed Eaton leaning
down to load drinks into a cooler in his trailer. Eaton continued to walk to
and from his house to his Jeep to load pillows, blankets, and other objects.
This footage showed Eaton repeatedly bending over. Eaton drove himself and his
wife for about four hours until they reached their destination in Alabama. Although the investigator did not follow Eaton
into the woods, the footage showed Eaton, along with the rest of the group,
driving to the off-road trails.
The March and April 2016 videos showed Eaton easily moving
about with no physical indications of pain. There was no footage of Eaton
limping or barely being able to walk. In the court’s view, it stood to reason
that, if Eaton were, in fact, totally disabled, a surveillance video taken over
a long span of time would show Eaton in the constant and debilitating pain that
he alleged. Here, it did not. Reliance Standard’s reliance on such overwhelming
contradictory surveillance footage was not arbitrary and capricious.
The court found that Reliance Standard did not act
arbitrarily and capriciously in denying Eaton disability benefits.
The case is Gregory
Eaton v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company, 2018 WL 3639837 (W.D.
Tenn., July 31, 2018).
Michael R. LiedHoward & Howard Attorneys PLLCOne Technology Plaza, 211 Fulton Street, Suite 600, Peoria, IL 61602(309) 999-6311MLied@howardandhoward.com