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FITTS v. FEDERAL NAT'L MTGE. ASSOC.

February 26, 2002

JANE FITTS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
FEDERAL NATIONAL MORTGAGE ASSOCIATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Jane G. Fitts ("Fitts"), claims that defendants, her former employer, Federal National Mortgage Association ("Fannie Mae"), and its employee disability insurance provider, Unum Life Insurance Company of America ("Unum"), violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., because they determined that she was eligible to receive disability payments for only twenty-four months under a long term disability policy that limits disability payments for any Fannie Mae employee who develops a disability that is due to "mental illness." Presently before the court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Fitts claims that defendants improperly classified her disability, bipolar disorder, as a mental illness and thus improperly subjected her to the disability policy's twenty-four month limitation of benefits provision. Defendants also seek summary judgment, arguing just the opposite. Upon consideration of the parties' motions, the opposition thereto, and the record in this case, the court concludes that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment should be granted and that defendants' motion for summary judgment should be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Fitts began to work as an attorney for Fannie Mae in 1982. In 1995, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was unable to continue working.*fn1 Part of the employee welfare benefit plan that Fannie Mae offers to its workers includes a long-term disability insurance policy that is issued and administered by Unum. Under the policy, any employee who develops a disability is eligible for a certain package of benefits until age sixty-five The policy contains an exception, however. If the employee's disability is "due to mental illness," the employee's benefits are discontinued after twenty-four months. The policy defines mental illness as a "mental, nervous or emotional disease[] or disorder[] of any type."

After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995, Fitts applied for disability benefits. Her disorder was found to be disabling but, because the disorder was determined to be a mental illness, Fitts was informed that she would receive disability payments for only twenty-four months. After defendants rejected Fitts's challenge to their determination that she was eligible to receive disability benefits for only twenty-four months, she filed this lawsuit.*fn2

II. ANALYSIS

The central question in this case is whether bipolar disorder is a mental illness and thus whether it was proper to limit Fitts's disability payments to twenty-four months pursuant to defendants' disability policy.*fn3 Fitts maintains that bipolar disorder is not a mental illness as defined in the policy and that the policy's definition of mental illness is ambiguous. Because the doctrine of contra proferentem requires ambiguous contract terms to be interpreted against the drafter, here the defendants, Fitts asserts that as long as her construction of the policy's provision regarding mental illness is reasonable, she should prevail. Fitts contends that it is reasonable to read the policy's mental illness exception to exclude bipolar disorder because of the illness' physical characteristics.

Defendants assert that bipolar disorder quite plainly and unambiguously is a mental illness and falls within the disability policy's mental illness limitation because bipolar disorder manifests itself emotionally and behaviorally. The court agrees with Fitts.

A. The Parties' Positions

1. Fitts's Definition of Bipolar Disorder

Fitts alleges that her disorder is physical because she exhibits many of the physical components of the ailment. First, she argues that she is genetically predisposed to develop bipolar disorder because both her father and her brother showed symptoms consistent with the illness. According to Fitts, the link between her genes and the onset of her affliction demonstrates that bipolar disorder has a physical cause. Second, she notes that brain scans indicate that the parietal lobe on the left side of her brain has atrophied beyond what would be expected of a person of her age. Other scans show abnormal brain wave activity on the left side of her brain. See Fitts Decl., 66 32-33; see also Griffin Decl., 6 8 (noting that Fitts's condition demonstrates a genetic predisposition as well as changes in brain activity). Fitts also claims to suffer from headaches, chest pains and insomnia. Because of the physical changes affecting her as a result of her illness and the physical association between the body and bipolar disorder, Fitts asserts that the disease is not a "mental, nervous, or emotional disease[] or disorder[] of any type."

In support of her position, Fitts provides a declaration from Dr. Frederick T. Goodwin,*fn4 who states that bipolar disorder is a physical illness because it is a neurobiological disorder that affects the physical and chemical structure of the brain. According to Dr. Goodwin, the disorder is associated with chemical imbalances in the brain and other abnormal brain activity. Dr. Goodwin adds that studies indicate that bipolar disorder runs in families and that certain people have a genetic predisposition for developing the disease. Dr. Goodwin also states that the fact that many individuals with bipolar disorder respond to mood-altering drug therapy indicates that chemical imbalances in the brain affect bipolar disorder. According to Dr. Goodwin, drug studies suggest that bipolar disorder affects the brain's neurotransmitters and corresponds with organic lesions in the brain. While Dr. Goodwin stops short of saying that bipolar disorder has physical causes rather than merely physical correlations, he ultimately concludes that bipolar disorder is a physical illness because it is a disease afflicting a physical organ of the body just like diseases affecting the heart, the kidneys or the liver.

Dr. Goodwin's views are shared by Dr. Suzanne J. Griffin, a practitioner in the fields of psychology and pharmacology who has treated Fitts since 1996. Dr. Griffin characterizes bipolar disorder as a "biological disorder of brain function with a genetic inheritance pattern." Griffin Decl., 6 3. While Dr. Griffin admits that "the manifestations symptomatic of bipolar disorder are more obviously behavioral and emotional," she maintains that the physical changes in the brain that result in those manifestations make bipolar disorder a physical illness. Dr. Griffin also notes that bipolar disorder is linked to changes in blood flow to the brain similar to the changes exhibited in Alzheimer's disease or heart disease. Thus, Dr. Griffin concludes that "[d]epression is as physical as heart disease, the difference ...


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