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A recent short-term disability case as forced us to ask, 'do Fairfax County schools understand their benefits package?'One of the promises that Fairfax County Public School system makes to its teachers is that they will have an array of benefits including short and long-term disability benefits. We are speaking with an increasing number of teachers who, through sickness or injury, are making a claim to their benefit plan and meeting a brick wall.

Fairfax County Public School has set up their disability policy with Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. Liberty Mutual is the insurance company behind the long-term disability plan. According to the benefits package, Liberty Mutual pays the long-term disability benefits. However, Fairfax County Public School pays the benefits under the short-term disability plan. Interestingly, the school system has hired Liberty Mutual to manage the short-term disability claims. Liberty evaluates the claim and tells Fairfax County whether they should pay the teacher her benefits.

Our experience is that Liberty Mutual is sloppy in their claims handling practices, often not sending the correct forms to the claimants or their doctors and then closing claims because "the teacher didn't get all of the information to us on time." Moreover, we find that the Fairfax County Public School Human Resources Department has not been very helpful to the teachers likely because, while well-meaning, they don’t fully understand the process.

We recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a teacher against Fairfax County Public Schools for the denial of short-term disability benefits. What the school answered in their response was simply amazing. Remember, we are dealing with Fairfax County's own contract with their teachers and Fairfax County's own agent, Liberty Mutual, and its disability program. In response to our lawsuit Fairfax County teachers said:

  1. Indeed [the teacher] provides very little detail as to the alleged contractual provision upon which she relies on assigning liability to a school board.
    To break this down, the County is telling the Court “we don’t even know what we promised to our hard-working teachers!”. According to the teacher's benefits package, the school pays short-term benefits to teachers. Liberty Mutual is only responsible for evaluating the claims.
  2. Without more information about the contractual terms supposedly providing the basis for [the teacher's] claim, the school board is unable to prepare its defense in this action.
    Again, the county is apparently ignorant of 1) the details of the benefits packages given to all teachers and 2) the administrative process required in processing these claims. Because the county is unfamiliar with its own benefits program, teachers are getting less than optimal advice and are wrongly being denied benefits.
  3. The school board asked the court to order the plaintiff to attach to her complaint the written contract with the school board (i.e., its own contract with the teachers); the "short-term disability benefits program" referenced in the complaint (i.e., again, its own short-term disability benefits program.)
    The contract they are requesting should be easily attainable because they are the party who created the contract in the first place. Most employers keep their employee's contracts on file, and it is unusual for them to request it from the employee. Additionally, they should be inherently aware of the benefits packages they offer new employees.
  4. Fairfax County Public Schools accused the teacher of "putting blinkers on the court" by not attached to her complaint a copy of the school's own contract and its own disability program.
    They are suggesting the teacher is withholding information from the school board. However, the contract in question was created by the school board itself. These are important documents they should have on file and be, at least, somewhat familiar with. They are asking us to do their work for them by providing them a contract they should already have.

This has confirmed our long-held suspicion that no one at Fairfax County Public Schools actually understands what benefits it has promised to its teachers. This puts teachers who find themselves in the position to have to claim disability benefits at a severe disadvantage, and sounds very much like most of the short and long-term disability programs that I have described in my book "Robbery Without a Gun, Why Your Employer's Long-Term Disability Policy may be a Sham."

Ben Glass
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Ben Glass is a nationally recognized ERISA disability & life insurance attorney in Fairfax, VA.