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Travis v. Midwest Operating Engineers Pension Plan

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 15, 2014

DANIEL TRAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
MIDWEST OPERATING ENGINEERS PENSION PLAN, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES B. ZAGEL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Daniel Travis has brought this action against Defendant Midwest Operating Engineers Pension Plan, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) seeking benefits due pursuant to the terms of an employee benefit plan. Plaintiff and Defendant have filed cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied and Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted.

I. STATEMENT OF FACTS

Plaintiff, born in 1961, is a former employee subject to a collective bargaining agreement with Local 150 Midwest Operating Engineers, making him a participant in Defendant Midwest Operating Engineers Pension Plan ("the Plan"). The Plan, an employee pension benefit plan within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 1002(2), provides for a total disability benefit called "All Work Total Disability." The Plan describes this as:

... [In] order to apply for an All Work Total Disability Pension, a Participant must have been awarded a Social Security Disability Award. Once an application has been made, an All Work Total Disability is defined as a physical or mental condition of a Participant, which the Trustees find, on the basis of medical evidence, to totally and permanently prevent such Participant from working in any occupation.

In late 2010, Plaintiff began treatment for congestive heart failure. After a series of medical tests and treatments, he stopped working as an Operating Engineer in April 2011 and had a cardiac resynchronization therapy defibrillator surgically implanted. Pursuant to the terms of the Plan, he applied for Operating Engineer Total Disability benefits, a benefit similar to the All Work Total Disability except that it requires only that the applicant be disabled from performing the duties of Operating Engineer. In support of that application, he provided his medical record and the evaluation of his treating physician, Dr. Prentice. The Plan granted the Operating Engineer Total Disability benefit application in July 2011.

Shortly thereafter, the Social Security Administration granted Plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance. With this approval, Plaintiff applied for All Work Total Disability benefits on August 9, 2011. Within two days, the Board of Trustees, the administrative body responsible for determining benefit applications, denied the All Work Total Disability claim, stating that sedentary work was possible at that time based on the evaluation of their own medical consultant, Dr. Simon, who reviewed Plaintiff's medical file. Dr. Simon stated,

The patient is to be considered totally and permanently disabled from all work as an operating engineer, both regular duty and light duty. The patient's cardiac function is poor, and he currently has an implantable cardiac device to monitor his cardiac rhythm, altering it as needed to keep the patient healthy and alive. Working even as a light duty operating engineer would put him at significant health risks. However, at this time, I do feel that sedentary work is possible at this time. Such work would not cause untoward effects on the heart, or put him, or others, at any health or safety risk. There are no objective findings to support any musculoskeletal condition that would preclude sedentary work. He should not do any lifting of greater than 10 lbs at such work, however.

In January 2012, Plaintiff appealed his denial of All Work Disability benefits, submitting a personal letter further explaining his condition. The Review Panel hired a second medical consultant, Dr. Kaufman, to evaluate Plaintiff's file. Dr. Kaufman's opinion largely aligned with the opinion of Dr. Simon, and the Review Panel subsequently affirmed the denial of benefits.

In May 2012, Plaintiff again appealed his denial, this time submitting further documentation, including an updated evaluation by Dr. Prentice, who stated, "The question was asked is Mr. Travis totally disabled from any work or employment and the answer to that question is yes." Moreover, Dr. Prentice indicated on an attached medical form that Plaintiff "frequently" (34% to 66% of an eight-hour workday) experienced symptoms that interfered with the attention and concentration needed to perform even simple work tasks. Assuming a competitive work situation: (1) Plaintiff can walk ½ to ¼ city blocks without rest or severe pain; (2) Plaintiff can continuously sit and stand 20 minutes, after which he must lie down; (3) In a total eight-hour day, Plaintiff can sit and stand/walk for less than two hours; (4) Plaintiff will need to take eight unscheduled breaks per day, breaks which last for 30 minutes; (5) Due to edema, Plaintiff's legs must be elevated for 20% of an eight-hour work day; and (6) Plaintiff is expected to be absent from work more than four days per month. Plaintiff also provided the review panel with results from additional tests as well as a letter from his daughter, who served as his primary caretaker and described the difficulties of daily life due to his condition.

The Review Panel solicited the opinion of a third medical consultant, Dr. Sonne, who stated,

Most of the medical file provided for review is from 12/2010 and 04/2011. There are no cardiology office notes from 2012. He is ambulatory on room air. He does not use any assist device. He is able to attend provider office visits and give a detailed medical history. His weight is unchanged. He is overweight at 6'1" tall and weight of 290 pounds. His ability to communicate is normal. His daughter noted that he can lift 10 pounds. There is no objective documentation of any restriction, limitation or impairment that would preclude full time U.S. Department of Labor sedentary work; thus, he is not totally and permanently disabled from any occupation.

Based on this opinion, but without addressing any of the additional evidence Plaintiff provided, the Review Panel again affirmed the denial of All Work Disability benefits. Plaintiff then brought this suit requesting the court to find that the Review Panel's denial of ...


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