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Patterson v. Caterpillar

November 21, 1995

LONNIE PATTERSON,

PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

CATERPILLAR, INCORPORATED,

DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 92 C 342--Rudolph T. Randa, Judge.

Before CUMMINGS, BAUER, and COFFEY, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED SEPTEMBER 19, 1995

DECIDED NOVEMBER 21, 1995

Lonnie Patterson brought this action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. secs. 1001-1461, seeking reinstatement of benefits that he had been receiving pursuant to Caterpillar's Monthly Disability Benefit Plan ("Plan"). Following a bench trial, the district court denied the reinstatement of benefits. Lonnie Patterson now appeals that judgment. In addition, Patterson challenges the district court's decision to allow the testimony of one of his treating physicians, despite Patterson's attempt to assert a physician-patient privilege. We affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. Background Facts

Because this case comes to us on appeal from a bench trial, we accept the district court's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous.

On February 9, 1967, Lonnie Patterson began a seventeen-year tenure with Caterpillar, Inc., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During that time, Patterson held a variety of jobs, culminating with the management position of Planning Staff Engineer. Patterson's employment came to an unfortunate end in March 1984, when he began a disability leave of absence after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Patterson began disability leave on March 16, 1984. He received his full salary for the first year of medical leave. Under Caterpillar's Disability Plan,

An employee will be considered totally disabled if he is not engaged in regular employment or occupation for remuneration or profit . . . and if it is determined on the basis of medical evidence that such employee is totally disabled by bodily injury or disease so as to be prevented thereby from engaging in any regular occupation or employment with his employer.

Accordingly, as long as he was considered to be totally disabled, Patterson would receive $1,778.00 each month in income benefits, as well as full health care.

For the next five years, Patterson submitted medical information in order to continue receiving total disability benefits. During that time, Patterson was treated by a psychologist, Dr. Mary Alice Herzog, a neurologist, Dr. Charles Supapodok, and various general practitioners. The statements submitted to Caterpillar by these doctors indicated that Patterson should completely avoid most types of transportation and refrain from physical activity.

In 1989, Caterpillar began a general review of employees who were on disability leaves of absence. This review included an investigation of Patterson by Pinkerton Investigation Services ("Pinkerton"). Pinkerton's investigation produced ten months of surveillance tapes which indicated a much more active lifestyle than Patterson had described to his doctors. But Caterpillar's review did not consist solely of videotape. In August, 1991, Dr. Paul B. Detweiler, a specialist in occupational medicine employed by Caterpillar, examined Patterson. After reviewing Patterson's file, which included letters and reports from Patterson's other physicians, and conducting the examination, Dr. Detweiler concluded that Patterson no longer met the Plan's standard for total disability. Gerald M. Burns, Supervisor of Disability Benefits in Caterpillar's Employee Benefits Division, considered the various medical opinions and surveillance materials, and agreed with Dr. Detweiler's assessment. Caterpillar accordingly advised Patterson that his disability status and benefits would be terminated effective August 28, 1991.

Patterson filed suit in state court in March 1992. Caterpillar removed the case to federal court and the district court held a bench trial from October 18-21, 1993. After reviewing the evidence and hearing testimony from various physicians and other individuals familiar with Patterson's level ...


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