Ex-Walmart Worker To Get Her Lawsuit Before Supreme Court

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Walmart disability benefitsWalmart won a landmark case in the Supreme Court in 2011, defeating the largest civil class action in history. But attorneys for the world's largest retailer will be heading back to the country's highest court. This time, there is just one plaintiff, a woman who claims she was denied disability benefits after nearly 20 years at the company.

Julie Heimeshoff started working for Walmart in 1986, ultimately rising to the rank of senior public relations manager. In 2005, she began suffering from chronic pain, fatigue and migraines related to related to fibromyalgia, her lawsuit states. By the summer of that year, she was unable to work full-time, and the Social Security Administration deemed her disabled.

In August 2005, Heimeshoff filed a claim with Hartford Life Accident and Insurance Co., which provides long-term disability insurance to Walmart employees. For the next two plus years, Heimeshoff and Hartford waged war over whether or not she was in fact disabled.

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Heimeshoff submitted evaluations from five different doctors, including her primary physician, a rheumatologist, and a neurophyschologist, according to her lawsuit. All of them found her to unable to work. Hartford hired three different doctors to review her file, and they disagreed. "[T]he objective data fails to support severity," the lawsuit quotes one of them as concluding. In November 2007, Hartford issued its final denial letter.

Heimeshoff sued Hartford and Walmart in 2010, claiming that the denial of her claims violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The federal law states that when a private employer provides benefits, the claims administrator must clearly explain what extra material is necessary to make a successful claim. Not only did Hartford fail to do that, the lawsuit alleges, the company used biased doctors, failed to investigate her claim in good faith, and denied her in a way that was "arbitrary and capricious."

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In January 2012, the federal judge decided in favor of Hartford -- but not because she said that Hartford acted fairly. Rather, U.S. District Judge Janet Atherton said the statute of limitations had expired. Heimeshoff had to file suit within three years of the deadline for proving her disability, the judge said. She was two months too late.

Heimeshoff countered that the statute of limitations should really begin when she knew she had been denied, which was a couple of months later. The 2nd Circuit disagreed, and dismissed her objection that Hartford had never told her about the time limit in its letters. On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear her case.

"The trial and appellate courts found that The Hartford's plan language was reasonable and enforceable," Hartford said in a written statement. "Indeed, most federal courts have enforced provisions like ours." Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn't the first case involving disability and Walmart to land on the Supreme Court docket. Several years ago, a Walmart order-filler who earned $13 an hour was unable to do her job after an accident injured her hand and arm. But rather than transfer her to an equivalent position, Walmart gave her a job as a janitor, at $6.20 an hour. Walmart reached a settlement with the employee in 2008, so the Supreme Court dismissed the case.

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