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Ninth Circuit: A person who is unable to sit for more than four hours a day is “disabled” from sedentary work under ERISA

Posted Friday, March 24, 2017 by Lisa Benedetti

Alternative TextIn Armani v. Northwestern Mutual Life Ins. Co., 14-56866 (November 4, 2016), the Ninth Circuit joined other courts around the country in holding that a person who cannot sit for more than four hours in an eight-hour workday qualifies as “disabled” from sedentary work under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).Avery Armani worked as a full-time controller for the Renaissance Insurance Agency. His job was “sedentary,” and required him to sit for approximately seven hours a day, and stand or walk for the remaining time.

During his employment, Mr. Armani injured his back while lifting a heavy backup power supply. His family practitioner and chiropractor both agreed that, due to his back injury, Mr. Armani was limited to sitting for no more than four hours, standing for no more than two hours, and walking for no more than two hours, during an eight-hour workday.

Mr. Armani applied for long-term disability benefits from his ERISA-governed disability insurance company, Northwestern Mutual. Under the terms of his disability policy, Mr. Armani qualified as disabled during the first 24 months if he was unable to perform his “own occupation,” and after the first 24 months if he was unable to perform “any gainful occupation.” Northwestern Mutual denied his application, claiming he was capable of performing his own job as well as other gainful sedentary jobs. Mr. Armani filed suit.

At trial, Mr. Armani argued he was disabled from both his “own occupation” and from “any gainful occupation” because, by definition of the Social Security Administration (which administers government-based disability benefits), “sedentary” work requires an ability to sit for six hours. The trial court held that Northwestern Mutual was not bound by this definition, and that although Mr. Armani proved he was disabled from his “own occupation,” he failed to prove he was disabled from “any gainful occupation.”

The Ninth Circuit disagreed. The Court noted that other circuit courts “have consistently held that an employee who cannot sit for more than four hours in an eight-hour workday cannot perform work classified as ‘sedentary,’” and agreed with this “commonsense conclusion.” Regardless of whether the Social Security Administration’s definition of disability applied in this context, Mr. Armani succeeded in establishing by preponderance of the evidence that he was unable to perform gainful sedentary work, given his inability to sit for more than four hours in a workday.

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