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CUFF v. INTERNATIONAL BUS. MACH. CO.

January 24, 1994

GWENDOLYN CUFF
v.
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINE CO.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS N. O'NEILL, JR.

 O'Neill, J.

 I. Introduction

 Plaintiff Gwendolyn Cuff alleges that she was discharged by defendant International Business Machine Company ("IBM") for the purpose of depriving her of IBM employee benefits in violation of section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1140.

 A bench trial was held. This Memorandum constitutes my findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 52(a). For the reasons that follow, I conclude that plaintiff has not shown that defendant terminated plaintiff's employment in order to deprive her of employee benefits in violation of section 510 of ERISA. Accordingly, I will enter judgment in favor of defendant and against plaintiff.

 II. Findings of Fact

 A. Background

 1. Defendant IBM is a corporation involved in the computer business. During the period relevant to this dispute, it operated a customer service center and other facilities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 2. Plaintiff was employed by defendant at its Philadelphia office from June 24, 1974, until February 14, 1990.

 3. IBM provides to its employees a number of benefit programs, including its Sickness and Accident Income Plan ("S & A Plan") and its Medical Disability Income Plan. As an IBM employee, plaintiff was eligible for defendant's benefit programs.

 4. Under the S & A Plan, an employee who misses work due to illness or injury is eligible for regular salary for each day of absence up to a maximum of 52 weeks in 24 consecutive months. In order to receive benefits under the S & A Plan, an employee must, upon request, submit a certificate of disability from his or her physician.

 5. Under the Medical Disability Income Plan, an employee who becomes disabled after five or more years of service is eligible for income until age 65. *fn1" In order to receive benefits under the Medical Disability Income Plan, an employee must offer satisfactory proof that the person suffers from a disability that prevents him or her from working. The disability must have existed for at least nine months and be the type of condition that will continue during the employee's lifetime. IBM may require a physical examination to determine the continuance of the disability.

 6. At IBM, employment is at will and can be terminated at any time. IBM's attendance policy requires employees to report to work each day as scheduled. According to the IBM employment handbook, an employee who fails to comply with the company's attendance requirements may be dismissed.

 7. IBM's medical department determines whether an employee's absence is medically justified. As part of its determination, the department evaluates information received from employees' doctors. In situations in which the medical diagnosis needs clarification, the medical department has a medical consultant conduct an independent evaluation. The consultant's assessment generally prevails over that of the employee's doctor.

 8. If the medical department finds a medical justification for the employee's absence, it will notify management that the absence is appropriate. If the medical department finds that the absence is not medically justified, it will notify management accordingly and management will handle the situation as if no medical issue is involved.

 B. Plaintiff's Employment History

 9. During the course of her employment, Ms. Cuff received a number of promotions. From 1987 until her termination in 1990, she held the position of senior customer center administrator.

 10. Ms. Cuff testified that in May 1988, she began to experience mental and physical problems including fatigue, weakness and an inability to concentrate. Her treating physician was Dr. Stanley Lane, who had a specialized practice in allergy and immunology.

 11. Plaintiff's condition did not improve. In September 1988, Ms. Cuff informed her supervisor, Ms. Donna Jennings, that she was ill. Plaintiff missed work from September 20 to September 23, 1988, and from September 29, 1988 to January 2, 1989. During this time, she was hospitalized for four days in November.

 12. Ms. Cuff received her full salary while absent.

 13. Pursuant to company policy, Ms. Jennings notified IBM's medical department of plaintiff's absence.

 14. Dr. Lane diagnosed plaintiff as having chronic Epstein-Barr Virus. *fn2" He also submitted a medical certificate to IBM's medical department identifying Epstein-Barr Virus as Ms. Cuff's illness.

 15. Dr. Lane sent Ms. Cuff to Dr. Lawrence Frenkel, who was director of the division of immunology, allergy and infectious diseases at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In December 1988, Dr. Frenkel performed a detailed examination of Ms. Cuff. In a letter to Dr. Lane, Dr. Frenkel stated that a "review of [plaintiff's] systems except for . . . sinus problems and lethargy is essentially unremarkable. . . . the physical exam today is essentially unremarkable." *fn3"

 16. Ms. Cuff returned to work in early January 1989. In a letter to Dr. Silverberg dated January 6, 1989, Dr. Lane stated that Ms. Cuff had "recovered from her outbreak of EBV problems" and that she "has had an extensive immunologic work-up done, which, thus far, has shown normal results." Dr. Lane also advised against plaintiff performing any heavy manual labor or working overtime.

 17. On January 9, 1989, Dr. Timothy Tomasi, an IBM physician specialist, signed off on plaintiff's return-to-work slip. He did not evaluate Ms. Cuff before signing the slip. As discussed below, Dr. Tomasi was the primary IBM physician responsible for evaluating Ms. Cuff's health as it related to her employment.

 18. During the first five months of 1989, plaintiff missed only one full day and two half days due to illness.

 19. On June 13, 1989, Ms. Cuff reported that she was ill and left work early. She was absent from work for the rest of June, with the exception of three days: June 19, 21 and 26.

 20. On June 26, 1989, Ms. Jennings contacted Dr. Timothy Tomasi because Ms. Cuff had been out and it was ...


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