Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Lawyer Negligence Does Not Extend Plan Deadlines for Disability Claim

When plaintiff's disability benefits were stopped after 2 years because of medical information, she was informed she had 180 days to file an appeal. She hired counsel which apparently normally referred such matters to another firm. The referral did not happen, no appeal was filed and in the subsequent law suit seeking equitable tolling it was conceded her claim "fell through a crack." Unfortunately for plaintiff, she had no luck in her request to extend the deadlines through equitable tolling. As the Court noted, its reluctance to:

... resort to equity does not spring from miserliness. Rather, equitable tolling "must be guarded and infrequent, lest circumstances of individualized hardship supplant the rules of clearly drafted statutes."

Ditto for ERISA plans as well. Gayle v. United Parcel Service (4th car. 3/9/05) [pdf].

Although getting nowhere with the plan, the Court was willing to give frequent hints that Gayle might indeed have a remedy. Among those hints:

the statement of the question - "we consider whether attorney negligence justifies equitable tolling sufficient to excuse the lack of compliance with the plan?s appeal procedure."

a blunt statement of what caused the appeal to be missed - "The attorney?s negligence alone caused her appeal to become untimely."

restating her argument - "Gayle?s argument boils down to a request that we relieve her of her counsel?s negligent failure to observe required procedure."

pointing out how the tort system works - "The law has always, and necessarily, held people responsible for innocent mistakes. The tort system, for example, is premised on penalizing innocent yet negligent mistakes. Many attorney mistakes are innocent in that they involve oversights or miscalculations attributable in some part to the sheer press of business."

And if she didn't get the hint before, the penultimate sentence:

Any remaining dispute must be resolved between the plaintiff and her lawyers.


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