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Kowalski v. L & F Products

May 2, 1996

TERESA KOWALSKI

APPELLANT,

v.

L & F PRODUCTS

APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

(D.C. Civil No. 94-cv-00448)

BEFORE: BECKER, ROTH and LEWIS, Circuit Judges.

LEWIS, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED DECEMBER 11, 1995

Filed May 2, 1996)

OPINION OF THE COURT

In this appeal, we must address the scope of Section(s) 510 of the Employment Retirement Income & Security Act ("ERISA") to determine whether appellant-employee Teresa Kowalski ("Kowalski") stands protected from her employer's alleged retaliatory discharge. Kowalski argues that the district court incorrectly granted summary judgment in favor of appellee-employer L & F Products ("L & F"). Kowalski has alleged that L & F terminated her for exercising her right to receive certain disability benefits.

We hold that Kowalski has raised a cognizable cause of action under Section(s) 510 for retaliatory termination notwithstanding the fact that she had received her benefits prior to being terminated. In addition, for the reasons set forth in section III of this opinion, we will vacate the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of L & F.

I.

L & F employed Teresa Kowalski as a packaging operator from April 23, 1984 until January 29, 1993. Kowalski's duties as a packaging operator required her to spend the entirety of her eight and a half hour shift on her feet. In June 1991, Kowalski informed L & F's company nurse that she had developed bunions on each foot. On the advice of her doctor, Kowalski decided to undergo separate operations *fn1 to remove each bunion. Between June 7, 1991 and October 21, 1991, Kowalski took a medical leave of absence for the first bunionectomy and received full medical benefits under L & F's Short Term Disability Plan (the "Plan"). Thereafter, Kowalski returned to work. Almost a year later, she took another leave of absence for the second bunionectomy and again received full medical benefits under the Plan.

During Kowalski's second leave of absence, L & F's human resource manager, Rob King, hired a private investigator to determine whether Kowalski was actually disabled and entitled to the benefits she was receiving. The investigator produced a report to King stating that Kowalski had been "clean[ing] professional offices" during her medical leave of absence. App. at 74-75. Relying on this report, L & F fired Kowalski on January 29, 1993. App. at 74.

In his deposition, King testified that he relied heavily on the investigator's summary of written statements made by two "witnesses," Diane Laich and Dr. Lapkin, both of which suggested only that Kowalski had contracted to provide cleaning services during the period of her disability. The investigator prepared a written synopsis of Laich's and Dr. Lapkin's statements, which summarily concluded that Kowalski was engaged in the performance of cleaning services during the period of her medical leave.

Neither Laich nor Dr. Lapkin testified or stated that they ever saw Kowalski performing cleaning services. Laich, in a certified statement to the district court, stated that Kowalski had contracted to provide cleaning services for a local church. App. at 50. Laich also stated that she was aware that Kowalski's son and another woman were providing cleaning services at the church. King admitted that he never compared the investigator's synopsis of Laich's and Dr. Lapkin's written statements to their actual statements prior to terminating Kowalski. App. at 73-75.

Despite his own testimony that it is important to consider an employee's version of events before deciding to terminate that employee, King refused to consider Kowalski's responses to the investigator's conclusions. In particular, Kowalski had informed King that she owned a cleaning service, but did not engage in providing cleaning services herself during the period of her disability. *fn2 Nevertheless, King did not allow Kowalski the opportunity to provide any evidence to support her claim.

Kowalski filed this lawsuit alleging that her discharge violated Section(s) 510 of ERISA. The district court granted L & F's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that (1) Kowalski failed to show that L & F's legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for termination was pretextual; and (2) Kowalski failed to offer any evidence of L & F's ...


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