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County insurer ordered to pay former worker $873,000

A federal jury has ordered Sonoma County's long-term disability carrier to pay $873,000 to a former Community Development Commission manager who was denied benefits after she was forced to quit for medical reasons, an attorney said Tuesday.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in San Francisco found Standard Insurance Co. acted in bad faith in the handling of a claim by Cassaundra Ellena, 51, a redevelopment manager from 2009 to 2010, said Ellena's lawyer, Bennett Cohen.

"They (the jurors) said there was no reasonable basis for the denial," Cohen said.

Ellena, who was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease Lupus in 2008, showed no signs of the disease when she was hired to the $102,000-a-year job, Cohen said.

But sometime after she began suffering symptoms including fever, chest pain and shortness of breath that left her unable to continue working, he said.

Standard Insurance, the long-term disability carrier for about 3,000 county employees, denied benefits, arguing special medications helped alleviate her symptoms and that doctors said she could work, Cohen said.

But other doctors, including the head of the lupus clinic at UC San Francisco, testified during the seven-day trial that Ellena was debilitated by the disease, Cohen said.

Jurors on Wednesday agreed, saying it appeared the underwriters looked only at information leading to denial of the claim, Cohen said.

They awarded damages equal to the amount in disability payments she would have received until age of 67, Cohen said.

She is to be paid a lump sum, minus attorney fees, he said.


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