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NELSON v. NIELSEN MEDIA RESEARCH

December 12, 2002

SEAN ALAN NELSON, PLAINTIFF,
V.
NIELSEN MEDIA RESEARCH, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR Marrero, United States District Judge

DECISION AND AMENDED ORDER

Plaintiff Sean Alan Nelson ("Nelson") brought this action against defendant Nielsen Media Research, Inc. ("Nielsen") seeking compensation in the form of severance pay pursuant to an employee benefits plan sponsored by Nielsen that is governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. ("ERISA"). Nelson's claim for such payment was denied by Nielsen's Employee Benefit Committee.

Nielsen moved for summary judgment to dismiss Nelson's amended complaint. By Order dated November 27, 2002 the Court granted the motion, and indicated that the reasoning for its judgment would be set forth in a separate decision. For the reasons discussed below, Nielsen's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

I. FACTS

Nelson was employed by Nielsen on July 2000 to work in the company's Human Resources Department as a Human Resource Business Partner reporting to Anita Rubino ("Rubino"), Nielsen's Senior Vice President for Human Resources. Following a discussion on May 9, 2001 with Jacki DeFilippo ("DeFilippo"), a Nielson Business Partner with whom Nelson worked, Rubino met with Nelson on May 11, 2001 to discuss termination of his employment, allegedly related to incidents of inappropriate and offensive behavior by Nelson. Rubino stated that she had planned to discharge Nelson immediately but decided not to do so at that time. Instead, as had been proposed to her by DeFilippo, Rubino offered Nelson an opportunity to remain on the payroll working part-time on special projects at full salary so as to enable Nelson to find other employment without a loss of income. Rubino also agreed to provide Nelson with outplacement services. According to Nielsen, Rubino proposed that Nelson continue working on these terms through mid-July and officially resign effective August 31, 2001. This accommodation was to be in lieu of any severance pay package Nelson would otherwise receive under the company's Career Transition Plan (the "CTP" or the "Plan").*fn1

Nelson offers a different version of the May 11 conversation. He maintains that Rubino agreed that he was to remain employed until the termination date, following which he would leave by "mutual separation" as defined in the CTP and be entitled to corresponding benefits.

Following the meeting, Nelson prepared a resignation letter dated May 11, 2001, recording his account of the agreement by which he would resign on the sooner of the date of the completion of his special projects, or August 31, 2001, and the parties would consider his termination a mutual separation entitling Nelson to CTP severance benefits. Nelson contends that, while Rubino did not sign his May 11 letter of resignation, she reaffirmed Nelson's understanding of their agreement at a subsequent meeting on May 23, 2001 in which Betsy Williams ("Williams"), another Nielsen Human Resources officer, participated. At that meeting, according to Nelson, Rubino stated that she had declined to sign his letter of resignation, although acknowledging her acceptance of its contents, not because she disagreed with the terms but because she did not want to make the matter that formal.

Nielsen, on the other hand, asserts the Rubino refused to countersign Nelson's letter because it misrepresented their agreement concerning Nelson's termination. Specifically, Nielsen contends that Rubino's offer to Nelson enabled him to remain on the payroll at full pay while working part-time in lieu of receiving any severance payments under the CTP.

On July 9, 2001, days before his projected termination date of July 15, Nelson sent a second official letter of resignation to Rubino. In it, he stated that his last day of employment would be July 15 and repeated his view that his departure would be deemed a mutual separation as defined in the CTP. Rubino again refused to endorse Nelson's July 9th letter. In response she met with Nelson on July 12. At that time Rubino informed Nelson that his employment was terminated immediately and offered him two options: to reaffirm his resignation with an effective date of August 31, 2001 and remain on the payroll until then, without any CTP benefits, or accept a termination for poor performance and receive a CTP package calculated on that basis. Rubino later consulted Susan Allen ("Allen"), a Nielsen Assistant General Counsel, who confirmed that under her interpretation of the Plan, Nelson was not entitled to a CTP severance on the facts presented.

Following the July 12th meeting, Nelson did not respond to the two options Rubino had offered and was then removed from the payroll. In a letter to Allen dated July 20, 2001, Nelson reiterated his position that his tendering a resignation on May 11 was conditioned on Rubino's having agreed that the termination would be treated as a mutual separation under the CTP and that Rubino's failure to respond to his letter constituted a waiver of objections. Allen responded on July 31 challenging Nelson's characterization of Rubino's proposals as expressing Nielsen's commitment to pay Plan benefits commencing after July 13, 2001 by mutual agreement. The letter concluded: "You received no assurance that the resignation letter you chose to offer would entitle you to any CTP plan benefits whatsoever, and we continue to decline to pay them." (Farrell Decl. Ex. B.8 at NMR 052.)

Nelson communicated with Allen by telephone message in early August, stating that he had not been paid on July 31 and that he had expected to remain on the payroll through August 31. Allen replied that Nelson had been removed from the payroll because of his failure to respond to the two options presented in Rubino's letter of July 12. Nelson then sent an e-mail to Rubino and Allen on August 6. There he restated that by means of his May 11 letter he had resigned effective August 31; he also demanded his wales through that date. In response, Allen advised Nelson that he would be restored to the payroll and paid in full through August 31.

On October 4, 2001 Nelson filed a formal request for CTP severance benefits. (See id. Ex. B.11.) It was submitted to Laurie Farrell ("Farrell"), a Nielsen Vice President responsible for administering benefit plans and a member of the company's Employee Benefits Committee (the "Committee").*fn2 In essence, Nelson claimed that on the basis of his resignation effective as of July 15, he was entitled to a total of thirteen weeks of severance, carrying him through October 12. On this view, because he had been paid through August 31, Nelson asserted that he was still owed an additional seven weeks of wages. As explanation for his claim, Nelson stated that:

Id.

Farrell wrote to Nelson on October 18 and invited him to submit in writing any documentation and names of witnesses supporting his application. (See id. Ex. B.12.) In response, Nelson transmitted by e-mail on October 24, as a statement of his side of the story, his July 20, 2001 letter to Allen. (See id. Ex. B.13.) He also identified as witnesses three persons, including Williams and DeFilippo, who he asserted would verify his account of the dispute. In his e-mail message describing his submission, Nelson stated that:

[t]here are other people at Nielsen who are aware that I was leaving on mutual terms, but I don't see it necessary to reveal who they are unless some weight will be given to that piece of evidence. I'm not sure why [Rubino], and subsequently [Williams] felt the need to misrepresent the story as it actually unfolded. If [DeFilippo] tells what honestly happened, my story will be verified, if she chooses to lie as well, I'm not sure what to say.

Id. Ex. B.13.

Farrell obtained accounts from the persons Nelson listed as witnesses, none of whom corroborated Nelson's version of the events. Williams's statement described a meeting between Rubino and Nelson (presumably the one on May 23, 2001), which Williams attended "as an impartial witness." (Id. at Ex. B.7.) She reported that "[Rubino] made it clear that she was not paying him past August 31." Id.*fn3 DeFilippo's statement, recalling a conversation with Nelson during the week of July 11, Nelson's last days in the office, reported that ...


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