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Engle v. Milton Hershey School

January 19, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane


Before this Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. No. 3.) The parties have submitted briefs (Doc. Nos. 6, 13, 15) and the motion is ripe for disposition.


A. Factual Background

The following facts are taken in light most favorable to the Plaintiff and are presumed true for the purpose of the instant motion to dismiss:

1. Engle's Employment

In August 1997, Plaintiff Janice Engle was hired as a food-service worker for Defendant Milton Hershey School ("MHS") in Hershey, Pennsylvania. As a food-service worker, her primary duties involved the preparation of meals for students and staff and catering. These duties demanded certain physical attributes including the capacity to lift heavy objects, stand for 8-10 hours per day, work in extreme temperatures, and use her hands for prolonged periods. Engle was hired as an hourly employee, and received benefits including disability insurance and health coverage, life insurance, and the right to participate in a 401(k) plan.

In 1998, Engle was diagnosed with fibromyalgia syndrome. As her condition worsened, she increasingly suffered from chronic pain and fatigue. She also began suffering from severe depression due to the pain caused by her fibromyalgia. Further adding to her condition, exposure to extreme temperatures exacerbated her symptoms.

Though aware of her condition, MHS allegedly did not attempt to accommodate Engle by, for example, placing her on "light duty" (in the bake shop) as recommended by her physician. Instead, according to Engle, starting in 2003, she became the victim of "a pattern of harassment and intimidation and belittling of Plaintiff and her condition. . . . " (Compl. ¶ 8.) Particularly insensitive to her condition were her supervisors Tim Long and Karen Lark.

Long and Lark forced Plaintiff to "use French knives while wearing hand/wrist braces" (Compl. ¶ 12), and threatened to have her fired for insubordination if she did not. When Plaintiff worked on light duty, Long and Lark saw to it that Plaintiff worked more than her co-workers. Conversely, on at least one occasion, Long insisted that Engle "put her arm in her apron because he didn't want to see it out in case anyone walked by and thought she was using it." (Id.) Long and Lark ignored Engle and would often respond rudely to her questions. They overloaded her with work, causing her to miss breaks, and routinely blamed her for shortages in supplies or ingredients.

On May 10, 2004, the situation reached a denouement. The air-conditioning unit in the kitchen did not work, and the heat became excruciating. Overwhelmed, Engle removed her heavy chef's coat. Long demanded that she re-place her coat and told her that if she passed out from the heat he would "walk over her." (Compl. ¶ 11.) Engle further alleges that:

It was brought up on May 10, 2004, by Mr. Long that Plaintiff was supposed to tell Ms. Lark is [sic] she was not feeling well. Both Mr. Long and Ms. Lark were aware of the extreme heat and the trips Plaintiff was making to the restroom to try to cool off. That day they were running short staffed. There was no union representative there that day, which in the past has been a ritual for harassment of employees in the kitchen. If Plaintiff did advise that she was not feeling well she either received a shrug of the shoulders of "What do you want me to do about it" in response. Mr. Long and Ms. Lark then confronted Plaintiff and told her "You have to come and tell us that you are not feeling well, do you understand?". They repeated that sentence about 8-10 times until Plaintiff finally told them to leave her alone and stop belittling her. (Compl. ¶ 12.) Engle then left work.

The next day, she returned and asked if MHS would allow her to work without wearing the chef's coat if she obtained a doctor's note. A representative of MHS advised her that such a note would not be honored. Nevertheless, while she attempted to work that day, she ultimately "could not tolerate the heat in the kitchen." (Compl. ¶ 13.) On May 13, 2004,*fn1 Engle's rheumatologist Dr. Trostle advised her not to return to work.

2. Engle's Applications for Benefits

Engle received treatment for her fibromyalgia condition from Dr. Trostle, psychiatric treatment for her depression from Dr. M. Corazon Fernando, and general treatment from her family doctor, Dr. James Bryan. On May 13, 2004, upon the advice of her doctors that she should not return to work, Engle made a claim for short-term-disability benefits pursuant to a self-insured plan provided by MHS and administered by a third party. On August 31, 2004, her application was approved and later extended until October 10, 2004. She also sought and received Social Security Disability benefits.*fn2

On September 15, 2004, Dr. Trostle submitted his diagnosis that Engle was unable to work "due to her severe pain and fatigue associated with the fibromyalgia syndrome, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression and generalized osteoarthritis." (Compl. ¶¶ 20-21.)

Two days later, Engle applied for long-term-disability ("LTD") benefits pursuant to a group policy offered by MHS and administered by a third party. Her application for LTD benefits was denied in November 2004, and Engle appealed the adverse decision.

3. Post-Denial Events

At some point after Engle's LTD benefits were denied, Barbara Malecki, MHS's manager for employee benefits and services, contacted Engle. Malecki told Engle that MHS expected her to return to work on or about November 3, 2004. Engle responded that she would be unable to return and that an appeal of the decision to deny her LTD benefits was pending. Malecki then advised that Engle that she could elect to use accumulated paid time off and vacation time during the appeal's pendency if she so chose.*fn3 Engle did so.

Meanwhile, Engle's appeal for LTD benefits dragged on. On December 2, 2004, Malecki sent Engle a letter informing her that her paid-time-off benefits would expire on December 3, 2004, and that failing to report to work on the following Monday, December 6, 2004, would result in her termination. In response, Engle contacted Malecki and repeated her concerns that she could not report to work and that her LTD-benefits appeal remained pending.

Because Engle had otherwise exhausted her benefits, MHS made a "non-precedential" decision to place her on unpaid leave until March 7, 2005. MHS further informed her that she was no longer entitled to medical benefits and that she would be required to reapply for her previous position as a cook. On January 11, 2005, Engle's LTD-benefits appeal was denied and Engle filed a complaint in federal district court challenging the decision.*fn4

On March 7, 2005, MHS terminated Engle's employment.

B. Procedural Background

On April 28, 2006, Engle filed a complaint in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania asserting five state-law claims: (1) wrongful discharge; (2) retaliation; (3) breach of contract; (4) harassment; and (5) negligence. On May 30, 2006, MHS filed a notice of removal in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, on the grounds that Count II of the complaint is completely preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. ("ERISA") and that Count I of the complaint seeks to enforce claims or rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.

On June 2, 2006, MHS moved to dismiss Engle's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. No. 3.) Both parties submitted briefs (Doc. Nos. 6, ...

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