Nov. 23, 2009— -- After a vacation with her mother and a few nights out with friends, Nathalie Blanchard thought nothing of posting a few pictures to her Facebook page.
In the photos, the 29-year-old Canadian woman appears to be having a good time, enjoying the company of family and friends on the beach and at a bar.
Now, Blanchard says her employer's insurance company is using those pictures against her, cutting her benefits because she appeared to be having fun.
For the past year, Blanchard has been on leave from her job at IBM's Bromont, Quebec office. After a doctor diagnosed her with major depression, she started receiving monthly sick-leave benefits from Canada's Manulife Financial Insurance.
But this fall, the checks stopped coming. When Blanchard called Manulife to find out why, she said she was told it was because the Facebook pictures indicated she was no longer depressed and ready to return to work.
"It's not because I'm having fun three hours, one time a week some weeks that I'm in good shape," Blanchard, who lives in Granby, Quebec, told ABCNews.com in an e-mail. "Nobody knows how I feel before and after the event."
Blanchard and her lawyer Thomas Lavin are taking legal action against Manulife and IBM, arguing that it was Blanchard's doctor who recommended that she socialize with family and friends.
"What they have done amounts to constructive dismissal because they've said to her if you don't come back by the 30th of October you've got nothing," he said.
Lavin said her doctor told her to exercise at the gym and get together with family and friends to the extent that she was able.
Following her doctor's advice, Blanchard went on a vacation with her mother and met friends at a bar on a couple of Friday nights, Lavin said.
"Using that alone to determine that she's better now and able to work, I think is inappropriate," he said. "It's really jumping the gun."
Lavin said he's observed similar cases in which information on social networks raised red flags for insurance companies. But, he added that in those cases the information didn't lead to the payments being immediately terminated. Instead it served as a trigger and prompted further medical reviews or examinations, he said.
"They never even notified her," he said. "They just stopped paying."
Insurance Company: Facebook Not Enough to Terminate Valid Claim
Without the monthly payments, Lavin said Blanchard is "quite desperate," unable to make many monthly payments and on the verge of losing her house to her bank.
"It's kind of a heads up to people about what they put on their Facebook accounts," he said. "It's going to be much more prevalent. I think employers and insurance companies need to have a protocol in a case like this."
Manulife declined to comment specifically on Blanchard's case. But in a statement the company said, "We assess and adjudicate an individual's medical and functional abilities fairly and thoroughly to determine whether or not an individual is eligible to receive and continue to receive disability benefits. The assessment of a claim is complex and requires multiple pieces of information to fairly determine an individual's eligibility."
The company also said it "would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on Web sites such as Facebook."
Asked if health insurance companies in the United States use social networks to investigate claims, a spokesman for the industry association America's Health Insurance Plans emphasized that health insurance systems in the U.S. and Canada differ significantly.
But spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said, "I'm not aware of any company that does that."
Still, Vito Colucci Jr., a private investigator in Stamford, Conn. who has been hired to investigate health insurance claims, said he uses Facebook regularly to gain insight into a policy holder's life.
"This is a tool now for the modern-day investigator," he said. "It's a tool to see what an individual is doing. They're putting it out in the public for everyone to see."
When he's hired by health insurance companies, he said he might use Facebook to determine an individual's schedule or learn about a person's activities.
But though it's a valuable tool, Colucci said it's just one tool out of many that an investigator might use.
"It's one piece of the puzzle," he said.