Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court let Wal-Mart block its female workers’ sex discrimination claims in Wal-Mart v. Dukes by changing the rules governing class actions. Next Tuesday, Wal-Mart will ask the Court to block its workers’ long-term disability claims in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., by changing the rules governing statutes of limitations, too. The company is arguing, believe it or not, that the statute of limitations to sue it for wrongfully denying long-term disability benefits starts running shortly after the claims for benefits are submitted, long before it rules on them (much less denies them), and long before the injured workers could ever file a case in court.
As Public Justice’s Matt Wessler will tell the Court and our briefs explain in detail, we think Wal-Mart is wrong. So does the U.S. Government, which has filed an amicus brief agreeing with us --and disagreeing with Wal-Mart -- on every issue in the case.
Every first-year law student learns that statutes of limitations, which set a time limit on how long a person has to sue, don’t start running -- can’t start running, as a matter of common sense -- until a person suffers a wrong and could actually file a case in court. If someone tries to sue before that, his or her case will be thrown out. As the Supreme Court has long said, “All statutes of limitation begin to run when the right of action is complete...” Clark v. Iowa City, 20 Wall. 583, 589 (1875). Indeed, the Court has “repeatedly recogn
ized that Congress legislates against the standard rule that the limitations period commences when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” Graham Cnty. Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409, 418 (2005).
Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, the federal law that governs Wal-Mart’s long-term group disability insurance plan (administered by Hartford), injured workers seeking benefits have to file a claim for them, submit “proof of loss” (evidence they are entitled to the benefits that is supposed to be filed within 60 days
of the claim), and go through an internal claims resolution process, including an internal appeal. Until they do that and lose the appeal, their claim is not officially denied -- and they cannot file a suit in court. That makes sense because the lawsuit ERISA authorizes is for wrongful denial of benefits.
Julie Heimeshoff worked for Wal-Mart for almost 20 years, rising to the position of Senior Public Relations manager. When Ms. Heimeshoff began suffering from significant pain and fatigue, she had trouble working. She was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, and several other chronic pain sources. In June 2005, her pain became so severe that she had to stop working altogether. She sought benefits and, after a long internal process, her claim was denied. The statute of limitations was three years and, less than three years later, she filed suit.