After winning a landmark sex discrimination case in 2011, Walmart’s attorneys are headed back to court. This time the claim is not one of sex discrimination, but a woman claiming denial of disability benefits, after 20 years of loyal service to the retail mogul.

Disability Case Background

In 1986 Julie Heimeshoff began her career with Walmart, eventually reaching the position of senior public relations manager. In 2005, Heimeshoff began to experience fatigue, migraines and chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia. By my 2005, she was unable to continue her work full-time and was deemed disabled, per the Social Security Administration. In August Heimeshoff filed a claim with Hartford Life Accident and Insurance Co., the company that Walmart employees receive long-term disability insurance from. For two years, despite being classified as disabled by the SSA, Heimeshoff had to fight for benefits.  

She continued to submit evidence of her disability, including documentation from five doctors (her primary physician, a rheumatologist, and a neurophyschologist); all of which found her unfit to work given her condition. The insurance company subsequently hired three experts that did not support Heimeshoff’s claim of disability.  "[T]he objective data fails to support severity," suggests the lawsuit. Hartford issues its final letter of denial to Heimeshoff in November of 2007.

Denial of Benefits - Violation of Employee Retirement Income Security Act?

In 2010 Heimeshoff filed a lawsuit against Walmart with a claim that the denial of her disability insurance was in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act; a federal law that says when an employer provided benefits there must be a clear explanation when a denial of a claim arises. Here, Hartford blatantly failed to clearly explain Heimeshoff’s denial, not to mention there was certainly a failure of good faith efforts employed in the decision making process.

Last January, a federal court ruled in favor of the insurance company, but not for the reasons you may think. U.S. District Court Judge Janet Atherton found in favor of Hartford simply because the statute of limitations had expired on Heimeshoff’s claim. According to state law, the statute of limitations to file a disability suit such as this one is three years….Heimeshoff missed the mark my a mere two months.

Despite the Court’s ruling, Heimeshoff suggested that the statute of limitations should not have started to run until she was made aware of her denial of benefits, which would make her claim still within the necessary time frame to proceed with her suit. The 2nd Circuit did not find her argument persuasive, however she may have another shot at redress.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Heimeshoff’s case even though Hartford believes that the lower courts were in the right. "The trial and appellate courts found that The Hartford's plan language was reasonable and enforceable," Hartford said. "Indeed, most federal courts have enforced provisions like ours."

Not the First Disability Case for Walmart

Walmart has failed to comment on the litigation, probably because this isn’t the first instance where they have found themselves in court regarding disability issues. Several years back Walmart was on the Supreme Court docket when it transferred an order-filler to the position of janitor after she injured her hand and arm while working; it should be noted that this position came complete with a $5.80 pay decrease. Eventually, in 2008, Walmart reached a settlement with the employee so perhaps there is hope for Heimeshoff.

It seems that her claim has merit; it simply depends on when the court decides Heimeshoff actually received notice of her denial. Perhaps Walmart will choose to settle as it did in the 2008 case. It’s no secret they have the money to do so.