Stanford grad forsakes corporate practice to advocate for consumers and take down scheming insurance companies
Fighting against an imbalance of power seems to be a never-ending uphill battle as it pertains to individuals versus insurance companies. But Katie Spielman sees her job for what it really is: a watchdog for people who need the care they’ve been promised and have paid for.
Spielman, who works with the DL Law Group in San Francisco, specializes in insurance bad-faith and ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) cases, representing people from all walks of life, including and especially those with mental illnesses and physical disabilities.
“There’s some really outrageous conduct, and insurance companies just seem to get away with it,” Spielman said. “So, I see our function as a check against that kind of bad conduct because you do get the cases … where regulators and legislators get involved, but generally there is little oversight, and I think that’s a big function of the plaintiffs’ bar, to act as that check against these types of corporate abuses and scams.”
Indeed, Spielman became familiar with such corporate transgressions firsthand at an early age, having been raised by a single mother who had a disability but didn’t have much external guidance or support. Those early experiences are what steered Spielman toward a law career and what continue to drive her today in her quest to keep insurance companies in check.
“I was always interested in fairness and justice,” she said. “We had struggles as a family, and (my mother) ended up losing her job. We lost our house because she wasn’t able to work anymore because of her disability. Going through some of those things, it seemed to me that there was an imbalance of power, and if she had had better resources, better knowledge, better advocacy, it might have helped that situation. That was where I got the initial idea that I wanted to be an advocate, and eventually that took shape in wanting to start a legal career.”
While working in plaintiffs’ law was the ultimate objective, Spielman knew landing her dream job right out of law school was not a high probability. Coming out of Stanford Law, the recruitment program funnels graduates through to big defense firms, so it was “much easier” for her to get a job on the defense side, she said. Plus, at the time, it made sense for her because she had a plan to get a couple of years of experience, pay down some of her student loans and expand her options when it came time to look for work at a private plaintiffs’ law firm.
The transition wasn’t exactly as smooth as it could have been, but it helped to have connections.
“At the time, it was nerve racking because I felt like I needed to prove to the plaintiffs’ bar this is really what I wanted to do and explain my story because I think there’s a certain level of skepticism when you’re sort of switching teams,” Spielman said. “For me, it worked out. One of my professors from law school told me about an opening at the plaintiffs’ firm I ended up going to, so I had someone who knew what my career goals and intentions were.”
Her place in the world
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Spielman didn’t have any personal exposure to the law other than what was on television. She did have those firsthand family struggles as a youth, and that was all the influence she would need.
Once out of high school, she was ready to explore all the opportunities she was afforded and figure out where to begin her life’s work.
“I went to college on the East Coast at Cornell; a very good experience, very world expanding and eye-opening, a different world, one that I had never seen or been exposed to,” she said. “I really wanted to come to the West Coast for law school so I could make an informed decision on where I’d like to start out my career. When I got into Stanford, that was a no brainer, that was my dream school. And by my second year, I fell in love with the Bay Area, and decided I wanted to start my career here.”
During law school, Spielman had worked as a summer associate in the Chicago offices of defense firm Latham & Watkins. So, when she graduated from Stanford, she was offered and accepted a job at the firm’s San Francisco office, where she represented companies in contracts, securities fraud, intellectual property, health care and antitrust cases. After two years, she was ready to make the leap over to the plaintiffs’ side and landed a job at Pillsbury & Levinson, where she essentially began developing her skills as an advocate for people with disabilities.
“I always was interested in representing individuals and people,” she explained. “I’m really interested in people’s stories, and I think like many lawyers, I see a big part of my job as telling a good story.”
After about three years with the Pillsbury firm, Spielman ran her own law office for about a year, then took a job with Disability Rights California, a federally funded Protection and Advocacy Agency for the state. There she worked as a staff attorney, representing clients who had intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Today, with the DL Law Group, she continues telling her clients’ stories, where the villain is always a scheming insurance company.
“I think it’s a story that’s really relatable to a lot of people because when you buy insurance, you pay premiums, month after month, year after year, really with the hope you’re never going to have to use it,” Spielman explained. “But it’s a bargain where you’re paying this out over a number of years, so when that day comes when something bad or tragic happens, and you finally have to use it, and the company pulls the rug out from under you and denies your claim, I think it’s something that really resonates because they’re breaking the rules. It’s something they promised to do, it’s something that you never thought or wanted to use in the first place, and now when you need them the most, they’re not there for you.”
Taking down insurance scammers
One unique type of case Spielman works on is denial of health-care claims – insurance companies denying mental-health treatment – particularly long-term residential treatment for people suffering from mental illness, she said.
One such case involved a family with a daughter in crisis. As she was entering her teen years, the girl’s symptoms of depression and anxiety started really spiraling and getting worse, and she was starting to harm herself, Spielman said. The young woman had six suicide attempts, and her family was at its wit’s end. She had been in and out of the hospital, and she wasn’t getting better, but rather, she was getting worse. Finally, her doctor said she needed to go to a structured residential program, where they can get her medication adjusted, get her stabilized and treated.
“The family found a facility for her and submitted the claims to the insurance company, and it was denied,” Spielman said. “The insurance company said the facility was not medically necessary; she could be treated effectively on an out-patient basis. She had just gone through all this trauma – you never knew when the next attempt was going to be the lethal one. The family raided their 401(k). Getting that case resolved was very gratifying.”
Spielman has litigated multiple cases involving an out-of-state insurance company that contracted with a telemarketing company to make calls offering a $1 million or $2 million long-term disability policy. After consumers signed up, the insurer started automatically deducting premiums from their bank accounts, but when an insured filed a disability claim, they discovered it’s not actually a long-term disability policy, but merely a double-dismemberment policy.
“You only get a payout if you’re doubly dismembered, blinded or paralyzed,” she said. “So, it’s a real scam. … There was a big multi-state investigation, where commissioners from all over the country investigated the sales practice and made that insurer stop selling the policy. So, they don’t sell it anymore, but a lot of people bought it and are still paying premiums. And they don’t tell these people until it’s too late that they aren’t going to provide coverage of long-term disability.”
Spielman recalled one case against that insurer with a very memorable deposition. Her client was a single mother who had a son with a disability that she cared for full time. She bought a policy and paid on it for many years. Then she became disabled and was going to have surgery, so she called the company to ask, “Is something wrong with this surgery, am I going to be OK, do I have coverage?”
No one in customer service would give her a straight answer, Spielman said. In deposition, Spielman played the audio recordings of her client’s customer service calls with the insurer:
Insurance rep: “We can’t tell you what your policy covers.”
Rep: “We’re just the call center.”
Client: “Who can tell me?”
Rep: “That’s the claims department.”
Client: “Can you transfer me to the claims department?”
Client: “Can you give me the phone number?”
Rep: “No, they don’t like us to give out that number; they’re very busy over there.”
At that last line, the court reporter and the videographer in the deposition started laughing, Spielman said.
“I think that’s always a good sign when you’re in deposition, and you get the court reporter shaking her head and laughing,” she said.
Time out and about
When Spielman is not working, she loves spending time with her friends and staying active. In the summertime, she plays tennis and soccer and rides her bike. In the winter, she loves to go snow skiing.
“I’m so grateful living in the Bay Area, in an area where I can be active and outdoors all year round,” she said. “I have a sort of restless energy.”
When asked what advice she had to offer young and aspiring lawyers, she kept it short and simple: “Challenge yourself, and stretch yourself, and do things outside of your comfort zone.”
Getaway Spot: Lake Tahoe
Go-To Music or Artist: Dolly Parton
Recommended Reading: Anton Chekhov
Dream Job: Professional Tennis Player
Words to Live By: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop
2019 by the author.
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