United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania
March 22, 1999
TYRA D. BLAIN, PLAINTIFF,
BELL ATLANTIC OF PA., DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Katz, Senior District Judge.
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
Plaintiff Tyra Blain alleges that she was illegally fired by
Bell Atlantic. Before the court is defendant's motion for summary
Ms. Blain worked for Bell as a customer service representative,
beginning in July 1994. While at work on December 29, 1995, she
complained of chest pains and shortness of breath in connection
with having an anxiety attack. She was taken by ambulance from
work to the emergency room, where she was examined, advised to
take Tylenol, and released. Ms. Blain requested disability
benefits (under the Bell Atlantic Sickness and Accident
Disability Benefit Plan, or "SADBP") for the month of January.
That request was granted, and the Health and Safety Management
Center ("HSMC," part of the Human Resources Department) assigned
her a return-to-work date of January 29, 1996.*fn1
The assigned HSMC employee, Teresa Mack, talked to Ms. Blain's
treating psychiatrist, Dr. Edwin Nii Adom, on January 29. Based
on that conversation, in which Dr. Adom indicated a need for
further analysis of Ms. Blain's condition and promised additional
documentation, Ms. Blain's disability certification was extended
from January 28 to February 25, 1996. Ms. Mack informed Ms. Blain
of that decision and the requirement that she submit additional
documentation in a telephone conversation
on January 29. See Ex. 5 ¶ 5; Ex. 5, Att. 1 at 11.
Ms. Blain did not return to work on February 26, and neither
she nor Dr. Adom provided any additional documentation to support
an extension of her disability period. Her benefits were thus
suspended on February 26, effective the same day. Ms. Blain was
informed of the suspension of her benefits in a letter from HSMC
dated February 28. See Ex. 5, Att. 4.
On April 12, Ms. Blain's immediate supervisor, Isabella Coates,
contacted HSMC for an update on Ms. Blain's disability status,
and she was told that Ms. Blain's benefits had been suspended.
See Ex. 10 ¶ 4; Ex. 5, Att. 1 at 9. Satisfied that Ms. Blain's
absence was unexcused, Ms. Coates sent her a letter stating that
unless she returned to work by April 18, she would be terminated.
See Ex. 9 (warning that "you have been absent without leave
from work since your benefits were suspended on February 26").
Ms. Blain received the letter, see Ex. 3 at 65, but she did not
return to work.
HSMC received a letter from Dr. Adom dated April 23 which
The presenting systomatology has eluded all her
physicians including myself. . . . At this time it is
my Medical Professional opinion that Ms. Tyra Blain
is not physically or emotionally stable to resume
full or part time work. . . . I wish to regret that
the delay in furnishing you this medical information.
I was of the opinion that you had heard from one of
her attending physicians already.
Ex. 5, Att. 5. Based on this letter, Bell "conditionally extended
retroactively" Ms. Blain's benefits from February 26 through May
14. Ms. Mack's declaration explains, "This conditionally
certified period of disability could be shortened depending on
the information obtained from Blain's health care providers." Ex.
5 ¶ 7; Ex. 5, Att. 7 (letter sent to Ms. Blain explaining same).
HSMC informed Ms. Blain of this conditional extension on April 24
in a Notice of Reinstatement of Benefits and a Notice of Duration
of Certified Period of Disability. See Ex. 5, Att. 6; Ex. 5,
Because the information provided by Dr. Adom was vague, HSMC
ordered a Psychiatric Medical Consult by Dr. Bruce Smoller to
obtain more information. Ms. Mack's declaration states what
happened next: "Based on a conversation between Dr. Smoller and
Dr. Adom in which Dr. Adom stated that Blain had never had any
disability, on May 6, 1996 HSMC Director Pat Gahl decided to
suspend Blain's disability benefits for the period of February
29, 1996 to May 14, 1996." Ex. 5 ¶ 8. A May 6 entry in the Case
Summary Notifier (a log kept by HSMC recording each action taken
in Ms. Blain's case) reflects the receipt of a report from Dr.
Smoller and quotes him as saying Ms. Blain had no specific
impairment and that she was not disabled according to either Dr.
Adom or Dr. Smoller. Ex. 5, Att. 1 at 7.*fn2 In notifying Ms.
Blain for the reason for the suspension of her benefits, The May
of Denial of Application for Extension of Benefits simply checked
a box next to, "As of the date stated in the attached letter
[February 26], you were not unable to work due to sickness or
injury." Ex. 5, Att. 8.
Also on May 6, Ms. Coates sent Ms. Blain a letter terminating
her as of April 18. See Ex. 11. The stated reason was that "you
did not report to work on April 18, 1996 as required." Id. In a
declaration, Ms. Coates states that before sending the letter,
she checked with HSMC to verify that Ms. Blain's absence was not
certified. See Ex. 10 ¶ 5. The HSMC log reflects that Ms. Mack
called Ms. Coates on May 6 and advised her that Ms. Blain's
benefits had been suspended as of February 26. See Ex. 5, Att.
1 at 6.
HSMC received a letter dated May 6 from a Nurse Practitioner
[W]e have been asked by Ms. Blain to inform you of
the risk of premature labor based on her recent visit
with her gynecologist. Considering the symptoms of
premature contractions, a diagnosis of cervical
thinning, and a risk of premature delivery, we would
support her absence from work at this time and
extending through the last month of her pregnancy.
Ex. 5, Att. 9. Ms. Mack's declaration explains that this letter
did not persuade HSMC to reinstate Ms. Blain's benefits for
several reasons: The letter did not address the disability Ms.
Blain had previously claimed, it did not represent that Blain's
pregnancy complications had existed prior to the date of the
letter, the medical information supplied was lacking in the
required details under SADBP rules, and normal pregnancy
complications do not qualify as a disability under SADBP
standards. See Ex. 5 ¶ 9. On May 7, HSMC sent Ms. Blain a
Notice that Additional Information Is Insufficient to Prove
Eligibility for Benefits. See Ex. 5, Att. 10.
Ms. Blain appealed her denial of benefits, first to the Benefit
Claims Committee and then to the Benefit Appeals Committee. Both
committees upheld the suspension of her benefits for the reason
that she had submitted no medical documentation supporting her
claim of disability after February 26. See Exs. 16, 17.
At the outset, an examination of just what claim is present in
this case is necessary. In the form Complaint Ms. Blain filed pro
se, this is her full statement of her claim:
On 2-26-96 my benefits had been suspended until
further documentation from my doctors had been
submitted or verified. I advised acting manager
Aluster Farmer on or about 4-3-96 I was unable to
return to work and my doctors were trying to pinpoint
my disability. On April 16, 1996 I rec[eived] a
letter from my supervisor Isabelle Coates stating if
I did not return I would be separated from the
did not return and on April 23, 1996 my doctor sent a
letter to benefits and benefits reinstated me
retroactive from 2-25-96 through 5-15-96. I am filing
a wrongful termination lawsuit because a supervisor
was notified that I was unable to return and my
[time] to appeal their decision had not expired. I
had 60 days to contact benefits.
Compl. ¶ 3. In the Request for Appointment of Attorney filed with
her complaint, she stated, "I was wrongfully discharged because
my supervisor terminated me before my benefits were exhausted."
See Request ¶ 4. From these, it is difficult to tell what, if
any, federal claim is asserted in the case.*fn4
complaint itself, it appears that Ms. Blain intended this lawsuit
to be one simply for "wrongful termination." If so, there is no
federal claim. Due to plaintiff's pro se status, and because the
statement suggests an allegation that the termination was
connected with plaintiff's disability and/or benefits, the court
allowed the case to go forward.*fn5
Plaintiff is now represented
by counsel but has not filed any amended pleading clarifying the
In its motion, defendant makes a commendable attempt to defend
against any claim suggested by Ms. Blain's deposition testimony.
Plaintiff's response then picks up on those claims, saying that
the facts of the case demonstrate each of them: "The facts in
this case set forth the causes of violation of the ERISA section
510[,] hostile work environment, discrimination and treatment
different from other employees." Pl. Memo. to Mot. for Summ.
J.*fn6 No matter how generously the complaint is read, however,
it cannot be made to state a claim for hostile work environment,
discrimination, or treatment different from other employees.
Furthermore, even if the complaint were read to include these
claims, they would be meritless.*fn7
The court notes in particular that at her deposition Ms. Blain
explicitly stated that this case is not one for race
discrimination. See Ex. 3 at 179. In fact, she is a plaintiff
in another lawsuit in another district in which 125 past and
present African-American employees allege various forms of race
discrimination against Bell. See Ex. 18. The allegations in
that case relating to Ms. Blain are based on substantially the
same facts as those involved here. See id. ¶ 90.
Reading plaintiff's complaint in combination with her
deposition testimony, Bell has interpreted Ms. Blain as alleging
an ERISA § 510 violation. This statute makes it unlawful for an
employer to take any personnel action for the purpose of
interfering with an employee's attainment of benefits. See
29 U.S.C. § 1140. In this regard, the gravamen of plaintiff's
complaint seems to be captured in this exchange at her
A: I was approved to receive benefits retroactive
from February up and through May 15th. I was approved
to receive reinstatement of benefits. I never
Q: You never actually got a check?
A: Exactly, because my supervisor had terminated me.
Q: Did you actually have your approval for benefits
revoked at some point after that time?
A: After that supervisor had notified them that she
had already terminated me, they sent me a denial
letter saying that they had denied them retroactive
February up and through May 15.
Q: Are you suggesting that they sent you a denial
letter because your supervisor notified them that you
Ex. 3 at 64.
To make out a prima facie claim under ERISA for interference
with protected rights, plaintiff must demonstrate the following
elements: (1) prohibited employer conduct; (2) taken for the
purpose of interfering; (3) with the attainment of any right to
which the employee may become entitled. See Dewitt v. Penn-Del
Directory Corp., 106 F.3d 514, 522 (3d Cir. 1997). Although
plaintiff need not prove that interference was the sole reason
for her termination, she must demonstrate that the defendant had
the specific intent to violate ERISA. See id. Consequently, "to
recover under section 510, the employee must show that the
employer made a conscious decision to interfere with the
employee's attainment of pension eligibility or additional
benefits." Id. at 523.
Ms. Blain cannot show that Bell acted with specific intent to
interfere with her receipt of benefits. The record shows that the
decision to suspend her benefits was made independently of, and
prior to, the decision by Ms. Coates to terminate her. Ms.
Coates's declaration establishes that her decision to terminate
plaintiff came after learning of the suspension of her benefits.
See Ex. 10 ¶ 5. In fact, the reason for firing her was directly
linked to the suspension of her benefits, because it was the
suspension that made her absence unexcused.*fn8 Further, Ms.
Mack's declaration and the documents related to the information
HSMC had about Ms. Blain demonstrate that HSMC had a legitimate
basis for suspending her benefits; namely, they believed that she
was not disabled, and they lacked any medical information to the
contrary. See Ex. 5. Ms. Blain's speculation, in her deposition
testimony quoted above, that her benefits were suspended because
she was terminated is not at all supported by the record. Because
HSMC decided to suspend Ms. Blain's benefits
before she was fired, and Ms. Coates knew about the suspension
before she fired her, Ms. Coates could not have fired her with
the intention of affecting her receipt of benefits.
Moreover, it does not appear that plaintiff's termination
interfered with her ability to receive benefits. Defendant
submits an declaration from a Bell benefits specialist in charge
of administering the SADBP stating that "termination of
employment has no effect whatsoever on an employee's then-pending
application for SADPB benefits." Ex. 22 ¶ 2. Ms. Blain continued
the appeal process long after her termination. Both appeals
committees rejected her appeal on the merits, and neither found
the appeal to be moot or otherwise relied on her termination in
any way to deny her benefits. See Exs. 16, 17. Because
plaintiff cannot show that Bell acted with the specific intent to
interfere with her benefits, nor that her termination actually
did so interfere, she cannot make out an ERISA § 510 violation.
For the above reasons, plaintiff has not shown the existence of
a genuine factual dispute as to any cognizable claim. Defendant
is entitled to summary judgment. An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 22nd day of March, 1999, upon consideration of
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, and plaintiff's response
in opposition thereto, it is hereby ORDERED that the said
motion is GRANTED, for the reasons set forth in the foregoing
It is further ORDERED that the following motions are DENIED
as moot: (1) Defendant's Motion in Limine to Exclude Time-Barred
Evidence of Alleged Harassment and (2) Defendant's Motion to
Strike Jury Demand.
AND NOW, this 22nd day of March, 1999, it is hereby ORDERED
that judgment is entered in favor of the defendant and against