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Considering Impairments in Combination

Disability is not always based on a single medical condition. Many individuals suffer from multiple impairments; and while no single condition may be disabling, the combined co-morbidity of disparate impairments justify an entitlement to disability benefits. That was the lesson taught by Curtis v. Hartford Life & Acc.Ins.Co. 2014 WL 4185233 (N.D.Ill. August 20, 2014) (attached) which involved Cindy Curtis, a former operating room nurse at Lurie Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who became disabled in 2007 due to injuries to her back, knees and shoulders, resulting in arthritis, fibromyalgia and myofascial pain throughout her body. Although Curtis received two years of benefit payments after Hartford determined that she could not perform the material duties of her regular occupation, benefits were discontinued thereafter because the standard for continued payment required her to show an inability to perform the duties of any occupation she was capable of performing based on her education, training and experience and which paid a salary commensurate with her pre-disability earnings. The court overturned Hartford's determination.

The court found the combined effect of Curtis's physical and cognitive impairments qualified her to receive benefits under that standard. The court emphasized that "even if none of her impairments in isolation necessarily compel a finding in [Curtis's] favor," the co-morbidity of her impairments had to be considered in combination in assessing disability. The court was critical of the insurer's file-review consultants for failing to look at Curtis's impairments in combination with one another; and one of the consultants even refused to consider her severe pain in assessing functionality even though the pain was severe enough to necessitate the implantation of a spinal cord stimulator and also caused cognitive impairments.

The court also determined that Hartford's vocational assessment was invalid and questioned how Hartford could determine that an operating room nurse would have the qualifications to work as a deputy sheriff or building guard as the insurer had found.

This is an important ruling for disability claimants who suffer from multiple medical conditions because it recognizes the reality that even if none of the conditions considered separately would be disabling, when they are considered together, a more realistic picture emerges.

DeBofsky, Sherman & Casciari represented Cindy Curtis in this matter, together with attorney Bridget O'Ryan in Indianapolis.

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