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United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

March 22, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Katz, Senior District Judge.


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 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
  payroll. I

  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 From the 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 claim.

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 deposition:

  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
  received payments.

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
  were terminated?

A: Exactly.

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 Memorandum.

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 the plaintiff.

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