Currie v. Group Ins. Com'n

Decision Date01 April 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-1916.,01-1916.
Citation290 F.3d 1
PartiesValjeanne CURRIE, et al., Plaintiff, Appellant, v. GROUP INSURANCE COMMISSION, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

and Richard Ames were on brief for appellant.

Ginny Sinkel, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Pierce O. Cray, Assistant Attorney General, and Thomas F. Reilly, Attorney General, were on brief for appellees.

Ronald S. Honberg, Mary Giliberti, Thomas M. Sobol, Lydia Alix Fillingham, and Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP on brief for The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, amici curiae.

Before LYNCH and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges and WOODLOCK,* District Judge.

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

The ultimate question in this case presents significant issues about a state government's ability to allocate insurance benefits by creating distinctions between different classes of individuals. Valjeanne Currie appeals the district court's entry of summary judgment for the defendant, the Group Insurance Commission (GIC), which provides disability benefits for employees of the state of Massachusetts. Currie v. Group Ins. Comm'n, 147 F.Supp.2d 30 (D.Mass.2001). Currie challenges an aspect of the GIC long-term disability benefits policy, which limits benefits for noninstitutionalized individuals with mental disabilities to one year; GIC imposes no such time limit on benefits for the institutionalized mentally ill or on noninstitutionalized individuals with physical disabilities. Currie argues that this policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (1994), the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, and the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.

The immediate issue is whether this court should proceed to resolve the merits of this case while an appeal proceeds in parallel litigation in the state courts on an issue of state law which could moot or otherwise inform the federal litigation. The plaintiffs have asked us to stay our hand. The defendants urge us to dispose of the case on a difficult issue of federal statutory construction on which the circuits are split. They generally would prefer a prompter disposition of the federal action, but agree that the state court should decide state law issues. There is then the issue of what form a stay should take, should we decide to stay. The alternatives proposed are a stay under Colorado River Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976), or certification of the state law question to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). In the interest of comity, we elect to stay on Colorado River grounds. Certification would interrupt the normal state appellate processes. Moreover, it would put the decisions of the state law issue directly to the state's highest court on a record developed to address federal, not state, issues. Finally, it is unclear whether the SJC would accept certification where, as here, the state court's decision on state issues would not be dispositive of the federal issue, but would merely render it moot.


Valjeanne Currie was a Massachusetts state employee for fourteen years, working at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. She suffers from schizophrenia. In 1999, her illness forced her to take a leave of absence from work and she has not been able to return to work since that time. She receives daily psychiatric care on an outpatient basis. There is no dispute in this case that Currie's illness is severe, genuine, and debilitating.

The GIC is a state agency, established by state law, to provide state employees with medical, dental, life, and disability insurance. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 32A, §§ 1-4, 10D (2000). The long-term disability insurance (LTD) program, which is the policy Currie challenges, provides income assistance to state employees who become disabled and cannot work. The governing statute charges the GIC with establishing a disability insurance plan "on such terms and conditions as it deems to be in the best interest of the commonwealth and its employees." Id. § 10D. The plan is required to be self-supporting; by statute, the Commonwealth may make no contribution to the support of the plan. Id. The plan is also voluntary — state employees may choose whether or not they wish to participate. Participating employees pay premiums during the course of their employment. Massachusetts state employees are not permitted to participate in the federal social security system, and so Currie does not have access to the federally sponsored social security net available to most Americans.

The Commonwealth initiated the LTD plan in 1988. The GIC accepts bids from private insurers to cover the LTD plan. Prior to 1998, the plan did not provide any benefits for mentally disabled individuals who were not hospitalized. In 1994, the Hartford Life Insurance Company, the private insurer carrying the LTD contract, suggested adding coverage for nonhospitalized mentally disabled individuals. However, after some consideration, the GIC determined that the rate increase required for such coverage was infeasible due to the risk of adverse selection. Adverse selection is a problem confronted by voluntary insurance plans, whereby those individuals who consider themselves to have a low risk opt out of the program. This decreases the amount paid into the program, and increases the percentage of program participants who will eventually receive benefits. Of course, as the cost of coverage rises, more low-risk individuals will choose to opt out.

When the Hartford contract was renewed, effective July 1998, the GIC's outside consultants recommended that the new contract provide for one year's worth of benefits for nonhospitalized mentally disabled individuals. The GIC adopted this recommendation, which is the policy challenged by Currie. After this first year of benefits, the individual may only continue to receive benefits if he or she is confined to a hospital or institution, in which case the benefits continue until the individual is discharged. Plan participants who suffer from physical disabilities have no such limitations on their coverage.

Currie began receiving benefits in June of 1999. In October of that year, she received a letter informing her that the payments would be terminated in June of 2000 unless she entered an institution. In January of 2000, Currie filed suit against the GIC in the federal district court. In May of 2000, Currie filed suit in state court, challenging the same provision of the LTD policy based on Massachusetts state antidiscrimination law, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B (2000). On June 7, 2000, a state superior court judge entered a preliminary injunction, ordering GIC to continue her benefits, and thus necessarily finding some probability of success. Currie v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., No. 00-1831 (Mass.Super.Ct. June 7, 2000). On June 14, 2001, the federal district court denied summary judgment for the plaintiffs and granted summary judgment to the defendants. On January 24, 2002, a state Superior Court judge denied plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the case. Currie v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., No. 00-1831-H (Mass.Super.Ct. Jan. 24, 2002). We cannot tell if the record in the state court case is fuller than or identical to the summary judgment record in the federal case. We can say the issues in the state and federal cases are not identical and therefore the evidence presented may be different. Plaintiffs have appealed that decision.

Currie argues that entering an institution would severely decrease the likelihood that her condition would improve to the extent that she would be able to return to work, and has presented affidavits from her treating doctors to support this argument. She implies that GIC's policy, which allows for unlimited benefits for the hospitalized mentally ill, may therefore cost it more in the long run than would a policy allowing her to continue outpatient treatment. What is at stake, then, she argues, is not the amount of money GIC will pay out, but rather her ability to continue in a noninstitutionalized setting.1

Following oral argument in this case, the GIC informed us that it has negotiated a new LTD policy contract which will take effect when the current contract with the Hartford expires in July 2002. The new policy, carried by C.N.A. Group Benefits, will provide LTD benefits beyond one year for individuals, like Currie, who have mental disabilities and are receiving outpatient care in the form of day treatment, partial hospital treatment, or residential treatment for at least five hours per day, four days per week. Because this new policy will not apply to Currie or to other individuals who stop working before the new policy comes into effect in July 2002, GIC does not suggest that this change moots Currie's claim.


Currie makes three challenges to the LTD policy offered by GIC through the Hartford, one premised on the ADA and two premised on the federal constitution.

A. ADA Claim

First, Currie argues that the LTD policy violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12165, which states that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity." Id. § 12132. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant on this claim, holding that: 1) Title II of the ADA does not encompass employment practices; and 2) even if Title II covered employment, the LTD plan would fall under the "safe harbor" provision established by Congress...

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