ERISA Claimant Retains Burden of Proof For Establishing Disability Under a De Novo Standard of Review

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The question of who has the burden of proof can often decide the outcome of litigation. Given its importance, it is common to see litigants attempt to shift that burden to the opposing side in order to secure a tactical advantage. Recently, in Muniz v. Amec Construction Management Inc., __ F.3d __, 2010 WL 4227877 (Decided October 27, 2010), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the question of whether the burden of proof can be shifted in an ERISA disability case. In Muniz, a claimant diagnosed with HIV applied for benefits through his employer’s long-term disability plan (the “Plan”). Benefits were approved and paid for the first 24 months. However, as is common with many benefit plans, after 24 months the definition of disability changed. In order to qualify under the Plan, the claimant must be unable to perform all the essential duties of any occupation. As a result, the Plan terminated his benefits.

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