One of the issues that can keep attorneys up at night are client’s statutes of limitations. Behind the scenes, careful due diligence on everyone of our client’s cases is performed in order that the statute of limitations is properly documented and preserved so that our clients have a right to proceed on their actions.
A statute of limitations is a period of time set, either by statue or by agreement, which limits the amount of time in which an individual has to file the claim of action. Particularly, in my practice area of ERISA, long term disability, there is some irregularity in the way the statute of limitations are set. Routinely, the statute of limitations in a case is based upon the contractual language of the long term disability benefits policy.
In the normal ERISA case, an employer provides coverage to their employees through a policy of insurance purchased to cover their employees. In this policy, which the employee, may never see until only after they have become disabled, includes a limitation such as the claimant is limited to a 3 statue of limitations. This mean that in order for an employee to properly sue the plan in Court, the employee must initiate an action in the Court prior to this date. The complicating factor in an ERISA case is that there are numerous internal limitations, such as appeal deadlines, etc., which must be complied with in order to proceed on an action as well as complying with the larger statute of limitations.
Recently, in the Supreme Court Case of Heimeshoff vs. Hartford Life, an Accident Insurance Company, 134 S. CT., Page 604, our Supreme Court reiterated that contractual statutes of limitations were valid in long term disability plans. In the Heimeshoff case, the claimant had not even exhausted her internal remedies at the time that he contractual statute of limitation was up. The lesson learned from the Supreme Court decision would be that either an ERISA plaintiff should challenge the short limitation period language during the internal appeals process or would have to file suit prior to the exhaustion of remedies under the plan. A separate course of action might be reasonable for an individual such as a claimant in the State of Pennsylvania to file a Praecipe for a Writ of Summons to initiate an action in the State Court which has concurrent jurisdiction of ERISA cases and which would preserve the larger statute of limitations in the case while the appeals process could play our during the internal appeals.