Bipolar Employee Entitled to More Disability Payments

March 5, 2002 ( - An employee of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) is entitled to get disability payments for more than two years because her bipolar disorder is a physical and not a mental ailment, a federal judge ruled.

US District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr., of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, said Jane Fitts’ benefits shouldn’t have been limited by the 24-month cap in Fannie Mae’s health plan for mental illnesses, according to a BNA report.

Lawyers for Fitts had amply demonstrated the physical relationship between bipolar disorder and the body, Kennedy ruled.

UNUM Life Insurance Co., administrator of Fannie Mae’s disability plan, paid Fitts for 24 months after she first received the bipolar disorder diagnosis in 1995 and then stopped because of the plan’s mental illness limit.  Fitts then sued Fannie Mae and UNUM.
Medical Testimony

Before issuing his ruling Kennedy heard medical testimony from both sides about the scientific basis for bipolar disorder.

Several doctors called by Fitts said she was genetically predisposed to develop bipolar disease and bipolar disease was a physical illness because it is a neurobiological disorder that affects the physical and chemical structure of the brain.

Fannie Mae argued it should be considered a mental ailment because it is listed as such in psychological texts and treated using psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs.

However, the plan’s mental illness definition as a “mental, nervous or emotional disease” was ambiguous, Kennedy said.

“Defendants’ argument that bipolar disorder plainly falls within their disability policy’s definition for mental illness is patently without merit because the plan’s definition merely re-phrases the term mental illness by using equally vague terms,” Kennedy wrote. “The definition fails to specify whether a disability qualifies as a mental illness based on its causes, symptoms or forms of treatment.”

The case is Fitts v. Federal Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n.