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Law Firm Partner, Marathoner Wins Disability Pay for Long Covid

Dec. 28, 2022, 4:00 PM

A litigator who stopped working in April 2020 after experiencing near-daily fevers, brain fog, and severe fatigue won a court order requiring Unum Life Insurance Co. of America to pay him disability benefits based in part on his Long Covid diagnosis.

The order, which entitles plaintiff William Abrams to receive benefits through July 2023, is one of the first court rulings in a case seeking disability benefits under ERISA for ailments related to Covid-19.

These cases began to trickle through the federal court system early this year after a slow start stemming from a variety of factors that drew out the already lengthy internal appeals process beneficiaries must go through with an insurer before they can file suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Those factors include deadline extensions from the Labor Department, difficulty in obtaining medical records, and increased telework, according to a 2021 Bloomberg Law report.

Similar cases have been filed by a marathon runner in her early 30s, a software developer who contracted Covid while pregnant, a former Expedia Inc. product manager who developed pneumonia after contracting Covid in February 2020, and a MFS Investment Management employee experiencing significant fatigue and shortness of breath after his bout with Covid in March 2020.

In June, Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co. agreed to pay disability benefits to a California software sales executive who sued for benefits based on post-Covid ailments.

Disputed Diagnosis

Abrams, a marathon runner scheduled to run multiple races in 2020, joined Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt PC as a shareholder and litigator in 2019, working nearly 12-hour days and earning $525,000 per year before bonuses.

In April 2020, he began experiencing frequent fevers, severe fatigue, and mental fogginess that caused a sharp decline in his legal abilities. He stopped working, and has “exhausted his savings account, sold his house, and drawn on retirement savings to afford daily life,” according to the opinion, issued Tuesday by Judge Thomas S. Zilly in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Abrams sought benefits under a Unum policy providing a maximum of 36 months of disability benefits to firm shareholders. He submitted medical records from multiple doctors, including three who diagnosed him with Long Covid and four who diagnosed him with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Unum said these diagnoses were incorrect, arguing that Abrams “repeatedly pushed his treaters for a COVID-19 diagnosis, despite testing negative for COVID-19 four (4) separate times.”

Zilly said Unum “may be right on that score,” noting that Abrams has submitted a “paucity of persuasive evidence” that he ever suffered from Covid.

But the accuracy of Abrams’ diagnosis isn’t the relevant question, because all of his providers agree he’s sick, Zilly said.

According to Zilly, being a trial lawyer is “mentally and physically grueling” work that’s “akin to writing, directing, producing, and starring in a play simultaneously.” If Abrams “cannot follow movie plots” and suffers daily fevers, he “cannot be expected to plan out trial strategies for multiple, complex cases,” Zilly said.

Abrams is represented by Sirianni Youtz Spoonemore Hamburger PLLC and Megan E. Glor, Attorneys at Law. Unum is represented by Lane Powell PC.

The case is Abrams v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 2022 BL 461984, W.D. Wash., No. 2:21-cv-00980, 12/27/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacklyn Wille in Washington at jwille@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagán at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com