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BLAIN v. BELL ATLANTIC OF PA.

March 22, 1999

TYRA D. BLAIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
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 judgment.

Factual Background

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 stated,

  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, Att. 7.

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 6 Notice 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 saying,

  [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 ...

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