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Thompson v. Conagra Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Northern Division

October 7, 2016

EVELYN THOMPSON, PLAINTIFF
v.
CONAGRA FOODS, INC., EMPLOYEE BENEFITS ADMINISTRATIVE COMMITTEE, and CONAGRA FOODS, INC. LONG-TERM DISABILITY PLAN X60, DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Kristine G. Baker United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Evelyn Gayle Thompson brings this action against ConAgra Foods, Inc., the Employee Benefits Administrative Committee, and the ConAgra Foods, Inc. Long-Term Disability Plan X60 (collectively the “ConAgra defendants”) to recover long-term disability benefits allegedly owed to her under the ConAgra Foods, Inc. Long-Term Disability Plan X60 (the “Plan”), an employee benefits plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). Before the Court is Ms. Thompson's motion for judgment on the administrative record (Dkt. No. 47), to which the ConAgra defendants have responded (Dkt. No. 50) and Ms. Thompson has replied (Dkt. No. 51). For the following reasons, the Court grants the ConAgra defendants' motion for judgment.

         I. Background

         Ms. Thompson worked for ConAgra for over 30 years, beginning as a bookkeeper and eventually serving as the controller of the ConAgra frozen food plant in Batesville, Arkansas (Dkt. No. 47, at 1). As an employee, Ms. Thompson participated in the Plan, which entitled her to benefits in the event she became disabled. The terms of the Plan provide that “disability” means:

(a) during the Elimination period and the next 24 months of Disability you are, as a result of Injury or Sickness, unable to perform the Material and Substantial Duties of your Own Occupation, and (b) for the remainder of the maximum benefit period you are, as a result of Injury or Sickness, unable to perform with reasonable continuity the Material and Substantial Duties of Any Occupation.

(Dkt. No. 50, at 4). The Plan defines “Any Occupation” as “any occupation a participant becomes reasonably fit to perform based on training, education, experience, age, physical and mental capacity” (Dkt. No. 50, at 4).

         Ms. Thompson was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She underwent a mastectomy, which successfully removed the cancerous tissue (Dkt. No. 47, at 3). The breast cancer returned in 2005, but the cancer went into remission after Ms. Thompson underwent surgery and chemotherapy.

         In August 2007, Ms. Thompson began to experience fatigue and exhaustion (Dkt. No. 47, at 4). Her last day of work at ConAgra was June 2, 2008 (Dkt. No. 50, at 2). On June 3, 2008, she had an ejection fraction of ten percent, and she was later diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure (Dkt. No. 47, at 4). Eventually, doctors implanted a biventricular implantable cardiac defibrillator.

         Ms. Thompson continues to have health issues, some of which the ConAgra defendants dispute (Dkt. No. 47, at 4; No. 50, at 14-15). Ms. Thompson also suffers from mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), some of which the ConAgra defendants also dispute (Dkt. No. 47, at 4; No. 50, at 15-16).

         On December 2, 2008, Ms. Thompson was granted long-term disability benefits under the Plan (Dkt. No. 50, at 5) after Dr. Robert Morrision, who reviewed the case for ConAgra, concluded that “she was disabled . . . and that her condition ‘rarely improves'” (Dkt. No. 47, at 2). From 2008 to May 13, 2013, she continued receiving disability benefits. In 2009, she was also awarded Social Security Disability benefits (Dkt. No. 47, at 2).

         The Plan requires participants occasionally to provide proof of disability in order to continue receiving benefits. ConAgra approved Ms. Thompson's eligibility for benefits several times from 2008 to 2013 (Dkt. No. 47, at 2-3). However, on May 13, 2013, ConAgra informed Ms. Thompson that she “no longer met the definition of ‘Disabled' under the LTD Plan” after determining that, even with her health issues, she could work as a treasurer or department manager in Batesville, Arkansas (Dkt. No. 50, at 10). She appealed the denial of her claim for future benefits (Dkt. No. 50, at 11), and her appeal was denied on January 6, 2014 (Dkt. No. 50, at 16). Rather than file a second appeal request, which she was entitled to do under the Plan, Ms. Thompson sought judicial review of the decision in the Circuit Court of Independence County, Arkansas (Dkt. No. 47, at 3). Her action was removed to this Court.

         II. The Review Process

         The Plan provides that, in order to receive disability benefits, the employee must furnish proof of disability and that the employee requires the regular attendance of a physician (AR 803). Benefits under the Plan continue for the duration of the disability, so long as the employee provides to the Plan Administrator proof of continued (1) disability; (2) regular attendance of a physician; and (3) appropriate available treatment (AR 803). Proof must be provided upon request by the Plan Administrator.

         A. ...


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