Trials & Litigation

After former friend's tip-off, onetime BigLaw partner loses disability benefits

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Terri Truitt said she had so much pain from a back, leg and foot injury that she was unable to continue practicing law.

Truitt, a partner in the Houston office of Mayer Brown who focused her practice on oil and gas litigation, said she could no longer handle the international travel and lifting of heavy document boxes that her job required. In 2002, she quit working. The Unum Life Insurance Co. of America, which administered ERISA plan benefits, agreed and put her on disability, a federal appeals court recounts.

But after a man who characterized himself as having had a personal relationship with Truitt for “a number of years” contacted Unum and provided the insurer with some 600 pages of emails she sent between 2005 and 2007, a new insurance investigation resulted. The company concluded, based in part on emails showing that she traveled abroad on vacation and seemingly was practicing law, that Truitt was not disabled. The company terminated her benefits and sought reimbursement of the $1 million already paid. However, a federal district judge upheld Truitt’s argument that Unum had essentially acted unfairly by using information from an individual seeking revenge, reinstated the benefits, nixed the fraud claim and awarded her attorney fees.

Now the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has weighed in, reversing the trial court and upholding Unum’s determination that she is not disabled. Further, the appellate panel not only vacated the attorney fee award to Truitt in its Sept. 6 opinion but remanded the case for a new determination on the question of whether Truitt had fraudulently obtained, and hence must repay, the $1 million.

“The district court based its finding that Truitt did not defraud Unum, in part, on its conclusion that ‘the “evidence” of falsity Unum relies on is questionable in its reliability,’” the 5th Circuit explains. “Although we decline to address whether the emails establish ‘evidence of falsity’ for the purpose of fraudulent misrepresentation, we note, as discussed above, that the emails appeared facially reliable, presented a time line consistent with Truitt’s claim file, and were not persuasively discredited by Truitt.”

Hat tip: Above the Law.

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