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Krensavage v. Bayer Corp.

September 27, 2006

PAULA KRENSAVAGE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BAYER CORPORATION AND BAYER CORPORATION WELFARE BENEFITS PLAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McVerry, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Presently pending before the Court for disposition are the MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT, with brief in support, filed by Plaintiff, Paula Krensavage, (Document Nos. 15 and 16) and the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, with brief in support, filed by Defendants Bayer Corporation and Bayer Corporation Welfare Benefits Plan (Document Nos. 18 and 19).

After careful consideration of the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, the filings in support and opposition thereto, the memoranda of the parties, the relevant case law, and the record as a whole, the Court finds that there is not sufficient record evidence upon which a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict for Plaintiff, Paula Krensavage, on her claim under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") that her request for LTD benefits was improperly denied by the Bayer Corporation Welfare Benefits Plan; and (ii) on her claim under the Americans with Disability Act ("ADA") that her employment was unlawfully terminated and/or that Bayer did not properly accommodate her disability. There is, however, sufficient record evidence to support Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Therefore, the Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and grant in its entirety the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Bayer Corporation and Bayer Corporation Welfare Benefits Plan.

Summary Judgment Standard of Review

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

[Summary Judgment] shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

In interpreting Rule 56(c), the United States Supreme Court has stated:

The plain language . . . mandates entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

An issue of material fact is genuine only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court must view the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists rests with the movant. Id. at 242. The "existence of disputed issues of material fact should be ascertained by resolving all inferences, doubts and issues of credibility against the moving party." Ely v. Hall's Motor Transit Co., 590 F.2d 62, 66 (3d Cir. 1978) (quoting Smith v. Pittsburgh Gage & Supply Co., 464 F.2d 870. 874 (3d Cir. 1972)). Final credibility determinations on material issues cannot be made in the context of a motion for summary judgment, nor can the district court weigh the evidence. Josey v. Hollingsworth Corp., 996 F.2d 632 (3d Cir. 1993); Petruzzi's IGA Supermarkets, Inc. v. Darling-Delaware Co., 998 F.2d 1224 (3d Cir. 1993).

When the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party's burden can be "discharged by `showing' -- that is, pointing out to the District Court -- that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. If the moving party has carried this burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party who cannot rest on the allegations of the pleadings and must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Petruzzi's IGA Supermarkets, 998 F.2d at 1230. When the non-moving party's evidence in opposition to a properly supported motion for summary judgment is "merely colorable" or "not significantly probative," the court may grant summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50.

BACKGROUND

As the law requires, all disputed facts and inferences are resolved most favorable to the Plaintiff, Paula Krensavage ("Plaintiff"). Plaintiff was employed by Bayer Corporation ("Bayer") from July 1993 until November 2003 as an Administrative Assistant in the Polyurethane Division Customer Service Department.

The Bayer Corporation Disability Long Term Disability Plan As an employee of Bayer, Plaintiff was a participant in the Bayer Corporation Disability Long Term Plan (the "Plan"), an ERISA-covered employee welfare benefit plan.

The Plan provides income and other benefits to employees who are disabled for more than 26 weeks. For the first six months of long term disability, a participant is considered totally disabled if he or she is "unable to perform the essential duties of [the participant's] regular occupation." After six months, the Plan defines "total disability" as when a participant is "unable to work at any job for which you are or could become qualified by education, training, or experience." (Summary Plan Description at 27-28).

According to the Plan, Bayer Corporation is the Plan Sponsor and Plan Administrator, which is the designated fiduciary of the Plan.*fn1 The Plan vests the Plan Administrator with discretion to make final determinations as to any facts necessary or appropriate for any claims under the Plan, to interpret the terms and provisions of the Plan and to determine any and all questions arising under the Plan. Kemper Services ("Kemper") is the Claims Administrator and "provides administrative and claims processing services to the Plan."

Disability benefits are paid from a Trust funded by periodic contributions from Bayer. Benefits are also funded, in part, by participant salary reduction contributions.

Factual Background

In February 2002, Plaintiff underwent multi-level lumbar surgery which required her to be off work on Bayer's short term disability ("STD") program through June 2002. In May 2002, at Plaintiff's request, Bayer performed an "ergonomic evaluation" of Plaintiff. As a result of that evaluation, Bayer arranged for a "moveable desk" device for Plaintiff's use so that she could sit or stand, as needed to do her job. No other accommodations were requested or made by Plaintiff in 2002.

On April 9, 2003, Plaintiff again went on STD because of an operation necessitated by an automobile accident. Plaintiff was on STD for twenty-six weeks, until October 2003, and did not return to work at the end of that period. In August 2003, Plaintiff applied for long-term disability benefits ("LTD"), which would, if she qualified, commence upon expiration of the short-term disability period.

On August 26, 2003, Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability benefits because she believed then, as she continues to believe, that she is incapable of any kind of work on a regular basis.

On October 1, 2003, Plaintiff's treating physician, James Kang, M.D., completed an Evaluation of Physical Abilities form in which he opined that Plaintiff was not released back to her own occupation, that she was continuing to have neck spasms that would restrict her ability to work, but that she was capable of performing sedentary work for an 8-hour day.*fn2 (Administrative File, at 29.

At Kemper's request, a General Peer Review of Plaintiff's medical records was conducted by an independent orthopedic surgeon, James Wallquist, M.D., who issued a report on October 6, 2003. Dr. Wallquist concluded that "based upon a review of the medical documentation provided, there are insufficient updated quantitative objective physical findings and diagnostics to correlate with the claimant's subjective complaints of pain and spasm in the neck to support a functional impairment that would preclude this claimant from performing the core elements of her own occupation in a sedentary work category." (Administrative File, at 30-32.)

Plaintiff's STD benefits expired in early October 2003. By letter dated October 10, 2003, Plaintiff was informed by the LTD Plan's third-party claims administrator, Kemper, that her application for LTD benefits had been denied. Kemper explained that "there are insufficient updated quantitative physical findings and diagnostics to correlate with your subjective complaints of pain and spasm in the neck to support a functional impairment that would preclude you from performing the core elements of your own occupation in a sedentary work category." (Administrative File, at 27.) Kemper further explained that it had determined that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the LTD Plan on the basis of Plaintiff's own treating physician's statement, as well as the independent opinion of Dr. James Wallquist.

Thereafter, Bayer granted Plaintiff a thirty-day "personal leave"beginning October 10, 2003, the date on which her LTD benefits were denied, through November 7, 2003, while she appealed the denial of LTD benefits.

By letter dated November 3, 2003, Plaintiff notified her supervisor, the human resources director, and the medical department at Bayer as follows:

Inasmuch as Bayer, through Kemper, has found me not to be qualified for Long Term Disability, I have no choice but to return to work on Weds. Nov. 5 even though my treating orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. James D. Kang, has not released me.

On Weds. morning at 8:30 am, I will report to the Medical Dept. for further instructions. (Pl's Appx., Exh. 15.)

It is undisputed that it is the policy of Bayer to not permit an employee to return to work without first obtaining a medical clearance.

Also on November 3, 2003, Plaintiff visited a chiropractor, Thad C. Schrickel, D.C., who completed an "Off Work Slip" in which he stated that "Patient is unable to return to work for an indefinite period of time." (Pl's Depo., Exh. 16.)

On November 5, 2003, Plaintiff reported to the Bayer Medical Department and stated that she did not feel that she was physically able to return to work. Plaintiff informed the medical department that she was having neck spasms, requested an ice pack, and eventually was sent home. The only accommodation which ...


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