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Joyce v. RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp.

September 16, 1997




On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey

(D.C. Civil Action No. 94-cv-00110)

BEFORE: SLOVITER, Chief Judge, and ROTH, Circuit Judge and POLLAK, *fn1 District Judge

ROTH, Circuit Judge.

Filed September 16, 1997

Argued May 23, 1997


John Joyce, the plaintiff in this case, terminated his employment with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. ("RJR") in 1989, after suffering from depression and receiving short-term disability benefits. Joyce claims that RJR failed to apprise him of his eligibility for long-term disability ("LTD") benefits and also failed to accommodate his disability, thereby forcing him to resign. The complaint, originally filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, alleged breaches of contract and violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 ("NJLAD"). Defendants removed the complaint to federal court; the district court denied Joyce's motion to remand on the grounds that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 1001 ("ERISA"), completely preempted Joyce's claims. Joyce filed an amended complaint alleging violations under ERISA, and the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all counts. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the district court did have removal jurisdiction and that summary judgment was properly entered against Joyce on his ERISA claims. The case will be remanded, however, to permit Joyce to plead a supplemental state law cause of action under the NJLAD for failure to accommodate his disability, which claim the district court erroneously concluded was preempted by ERISA.

I. Background

Joyce received a Bachelor of Science degree in Operations and Systems Management in 1985 from Indiana University, where he was a member of the Honor Society. Joyce began working for Nabisco Brands, Inc., in November of 1985. From 1985 until August of 1988, Joyce worked for Nabisco Brands in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, as an Inventory Analyst. In 1988, Joyce was transferred to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to work for RJR, a wholly owned subsidiary of RJR Nabisco. At RJR, Joyce worked as a Deployment Planner and enjoyed a somewhat higher salary than he had at Nabisco Brands.

Around the time of his transfer, Joyce received an RJR benefits manual entitled "A Detailed Guide to Employee Benefits Plans." The manual included information about medical and disability benefits and about other benefits available to RJR employees. Joyce read the manual and made detailed notes and markings in his copy.

Joyce did not last long at his new job in North Carolina. On September 12, 1988, he was ordered to meet with managers Dennis Andruskiewicz and Anthony Calore, who told Joyce that they were displeased with his performance at RJR. Andruskiewicz gave Joyce a memo on September 21, 1988, which explained that Joyce was not given the difficult assignment of taking over deployment at the Puerto Rico plant because, based on Joyce's job performance, the managers felt that he would not successfully complete the assignment. Andruskiewicz also told Joyce that he had three days to improve his performance and ordered Joyce to see Henry Lewis of the Employee Counseling Department Lewis referred Joyce to Dr. Luprecht, a psychiatrist. On September 26, 1988, Dr. Luprecht diagnosed Joyce as being seriously depressed and placed him on short-term disability under RJR's benefits plan. Shortly thereafter, Joyce left North Carolina for his parents' home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He sought treatment for depression from several doctors, including Dr. Eli Katz of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

RJR asserts that on February 6, 1989, its benefits department sent Joyce information about long-term disability benefits. An employee in the medical department certified that she mailed the benefits information to Joyce at the Basking Ridge address that he gave to RJR. Joyce claims that he never received this mailing.

On February 21, 1989, Dr. Katz certified, on Joyce's benefits claim form, that "Pt. is improving. He should come off disability and be ready to return to work 3/1/89 unless he decompensates." According to Joyce, Dr. Katz told him that he should not return to his former position at RJR, which would make Joyce's depression worse, but that Joyce should work in a different or restructured position. Joyce claims that he also thought that he would no longer be eligible for short-term disability benefits because he understood that the deadline for those benefits expired on March 1, 1989. In fact, the plan provides for up to 26 weeks of short-term disability benefits. Joyce thus remained eligible for those benefits until the end of March 1989.

Joyce contacted RJR repeatedly during the last half of February 1989 to ask whether he could be placed in a different position and to inquire about his "rights and options under the circumstances." Dr. Robert Fletcher, medical director at RJR, agreed that he would look for an alternative position for plaintiff. When Joyce called back, Dr. Fletcher referred him to Frank Beck, who told Joyce that his former position was available. Joyce told Beck he would have to resign rather than attempt to work in his former job, and Beck agreed to check if another position was available.

Beck ultimately told Joyce that RJR had a hiring freeze in place and therefore no other position was open. Joyce also talked to Mike Judkins and attempted to contact Phil Gazaway, both of whom Joyce believed worked in the benefits department. According to Joyce, he was not told that he might be eligible for long-term disability benefits. Believing that he was no longer eligible for short-term benefits and that he could not successfully perform in his old job, Joyce sent a resignation letter to Andruskiewicz on March 1, 1989. The letter read:

My Doctors have elected to take me off Accident & Sickness status effective 3/1/89. While I am in improved health, my physicians have cautioned me against returning to my position. It is my feeling that my skill level will continue to be below an acceptable standard, and so my returning to work in the same capacity will be neither beneficial for the company or myself.

I have truly enjoyed my years at RJR-Nabisco, particularly the people. Obviously, my current situation represents a rather large personal setback.

I hearby resign.

Sincerely, John Joyce.

According to his affidavit, Joyce did not learn that he might be eligible for long-term benefits until July of 1992, when his father suggested that he contact RJR to ask if such benefits were available. At that time, the benefits department informed Joyce that because he had terminated his employment with RJR, he was not eligible for long-term disability benefits.

On November 30, 1993, Joyce filed suit in the Superior Court of New Jersey against RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp., Nabisco Brands, Inc., and other corporate affiliates. The first of the two counts in the complaint alleged that defendants violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by failing to accommodate Joyce's disability and by constructively discharging Joyce by not informing him of his eligibility for long-term disability benefits or finding a position that he could perform despite his disability. The second count alleged that the long-term disability plan was a contract between Joyce and the defendants, and that the defendants breached the contract by violating an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

The defendants removed the complaint to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on January 13, 1994. The district court denied Joyce's motion to remand on May 2, 1994, in a memorandum opinion. ERISA, the district court reasoned, preempted Joyce's claims under the complete preemption doctrine. Noting that ERISA itself provides that state law claims that "relate to" employee benefits plans are preempted, the court concluded that Congress intended to preempt Joyce's claims, making remand inappropriate.

Joyce filed an amended complaint in August of 1994. The new complaint made no allegations under New Jersey law but included two counts under ERISA: breach of fiduciary duty and improper termination. The improper termination claim alleges that defendants forced Joyce to resign in order to prevent him from receiving long-term disability benefits. Joyce based the breach of fiduciary duty claim on RJR's alleged failure to provide him with information about long-term disability benefits despite his conversations with RJR personnel about his inability to continue in his old job.

In August of 1995, the parties agreed to stay discovery until the court ruled on RJR's motion for summary judgment.2 On June 17, 1996, the district court granted defendant's motion and ordered that "plaintiff's complaint is hereby dismissed in its entirety, with prejudice." Joyce filed a notice of appeal on July 15, 1996.

II. Jurisdiction

Our first issue is jurisdictional. The defendants removed this case based on 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1441(a) which ...

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