Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 11:21 PM

Split Fourth Circuit Affirms Denial Of Benefits In ERISA Case

Today in Stanford v. Continental Casualty Co., an ERISA case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of long term disability benefits to an employee who was at risk of relapse into drug addiction for a painkiller-narcotic he administered in the course of his employment as a trained nurse anesthetist. His addiction problems had begun when he started self-administering the drug, and he had relapsed twice before. The majority upheld the determination that his present risk of relapse was not a form of disability under the plan. Judge Wilkinson dissented. "All record evidence indicates that, because of his addition, [plaintiff] cannot return to work in anesthesiology with an reasonable degree of safety," Judge Wilkinson said, emphasizing that plaintiff has a chemical dependency and addiction. After accusing the majority of ignoring the language of the plan and mistakenly distinguishing a risk of relapse into addiction with a risk of a heart attack, Judge Wilkinson ended with this statement: "I believe my colleagues mistake the moral balance. [Plaintiff] is not currently taking drugs; he is trying to cease taking drugs. We should give people like him a chance to get back on their feet. . . . Judge-made exceptions are often assumed to be humane, while law is thought to be a cold, hard thing. But equity here is a sword that strikes against the needy but unfavored. Law would be kinder."

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