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Nov. 4 — Note to workers receiving disability benefits: Be careful what you post on LinkedIn.
A federal judge in California on Nov. 2 rejected a retired stunt woman’s lawsuit seeking disability benefits from the Screen Actors Guild’s pension plan. Both the SAG plan and the judge justified the denial of benefits in part by pointing to the stunt woman’s LinkedIn and IMDb pages, which showed her to be working regularly despite her claim to suffer from disabling depression ( Hoffman v. Screen Actors Guild-Producers Pension Plan , C.D. Cal., No. 2:16-cv-01530-R-AJW, 11/2/16 ).
Ronald K. Alberts, a partner with Gordon & Rees in Los Angeles who represents disability insurers, told Bloomberg BNA that social media posts are a “tremendous tool in ferreting out what an individual is actually doing with himself.” Alberts, who has represented disability insurers for more than 25 years, said that social media has come up in almost every disability benefits case he’s seen in the past three or four years.
“People promote themselves and talk about their lives and activities in a very candid way, and that information is important to determining whether a person has given honest statements in seeking benefits,” Alberts said.
Although social media has become increasingly relevant to litigation over disability benefits, Alberts said that LinkedIn—with its focus on professional networking and employment—hasn’t played as big a factor as the networks where people share more details about their personal lives.
Michelle Roberts, a partner with Roberts Bartolic LLP in Alameda, Calif., who represents individuals in disability benefits disputes, told Bloomberg BNA that insurers are looking at social media “almost immediately” after a claim is filed.
While insurers find value in this type of information, Roberts voiced concerns, particularly with respect to sites—such as LinkedIn—where users are less likely to regularly monitor and update their profiles. Roberts said many people maintain “stale” LinkedIn profiles in which they arguably hold themselves out as being able to work, when they’ve actually “just forgotten about it.”
Social media can be an especially difficult problem for someone whose disability is attributable to a mental condition such as depression or anxiety, Roberts said.
That’s because many people with those conditions experience difficulty leaving their houses and engaging with the world, and social media platforms like Facebook allow them to “socialize without ever leaving their house or having people see what’s really going on in their lives,” Roberts said.
Roberts also pointed to people’s propensity to put forth a positive image on social media, a factor that insurers can later cite as evidence against a claimed disability.
“It’s a double-edged sword, because these people are encouraged by their doctors to go out and be social and engage with society, and when they do that they can get ‘caught’ and found not to be disabled,” Roberts said. “The increase in social media investigations causes people to feel paralyzed.”
In the case of retired stunt woman Leslie Hoffman, Judge Manuel L. Real of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found that “reasonable evidence” supported the decision to deny her benefits. According to Real, the SAG plan relied on the advice of six medical professionals, five of which deemed Hoffman insufficiently disabled.
Real’s ruling comes after an appeals court revived Hoffman’s lawsuit in 2014 after finding that the SAG plan should have solicited additional medical opinions before denying her claim.
Hoffman was represented by Fleishman Law Firm. Fox Rothschild LLP represented the SAG plan.
Alberts and Roberts weren’t involved in the litigation.
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Text of the decision is at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Hoffman_v_Screen_Actors_Guild__Producers_Pension_Plan_No_216cv015.
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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