The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEONARD WEXLER, Senior District Judge.
This is an action commenced by Plaintiff Mark Ebenstein
("Plaintiff"), pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"). Plaintiff seeks to recover
severance benefits allegedly due to him under an ERISA plan.*fn1
Defendant denies Plaintiff's entitlement to benefits and has
asserted a counterclaim seeking repayment of a bonus and
relocation expenses. Presently before the court is Defendant's
motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and granting
the relief sought on the counterclaim.
I. The Parties and Their Business Relationship
Plaintiff is an individual who resides in the Eastern District
of New York. Defendant is Ericsson Internet Applications, Inc.
("Ericsson or the `Company' "). Ericsson describes itself as a
company that is a leading supplier of mobile communication
systems and a provider of core technology for mobile handsets.
In January of 2001, Plaintiff received an offer of employment
from Ericsson serve as a Product Marketing Manager. Plaintiff was
to be employed in the Product Line Entertainment Department at
Ericsson's Woodbury, New York office. In addition to a yearly
salary of $85,000, Ericsson agreed to pay Plaintiff a one time
signing bonus of $5,000. Ericsson also agreed to reimburse
Plaintiff for expenses incurred in relocating to Long Island from
Connecticut. The terms pursuant to which these latter two
payments were made are contained in Ericsson's formal written
offer of employment and the company's "Relocation Policy and
Procedure for Newly-Hired U.S. Based Employees" (the "Relocation
The formal offer of employment and the Relocation Policy are
before the court and it is undisputed that they were in
Plaintiff's possession when he agreed to accept Ericsson's offer
of employment. The letter offering Plaintiff his employment
advised him that the $5,000 signing bonus would have to be repaid
to the company in the event that Plaintiff resigned from the
company within the first twelve months of his employment.
Similarly, the Relocation Policy states, inter alia, that if
Plaintiff voluntarily terminated his employment
with Ericsson before expiration of a one year period, the
relocation expenses would have to be repaid to the Company.
Plaintiff accepted the position offered and began his employment
with Ericsson on March 5, 2001.
II. The Restructuring and the May 31 E-Mail
Two months after Plaintiff began his employment with Ericsson,
the company underwent a restructuring. Ericsson employees were
advised of the impending changes via an e-mail dated May 31, 2001
(the "May 31 e-mail"). A print out of that e-mail is before the
court. Neither Plaintiff's receipt, nor the language of the May
31 e-mail, are in dispute. As set forth in the May 31 e-mail, the
company was about to restructure and would implement a reduction
in force. Certain identified departments, including Plaintiff's,
were to be discontinued. While the May 31 e-mail refers to
impending reductions in Ericsson's labor force, it did not
specify which employees were to be terminated. Instead, it was
stated that "some employees will assume new positions . . . and
others will be separated from the company." The notification date
for the reductions in force was set, in the May 31, e-mail, at
July 5, 2001.
III. The Events of June-July 2001
The parties dispute certain factual matters that have been
alleged to occur during June of 2001. While Defendant alleges
that Plaintiff approached Ericsson personnel to volunteer for the
lay-off, without having to repay his relocation expenses,
Plaintiff disputes the way in which Defendant characterizes these
conversations. Because a decision as to the credibility of the
parties on these conversations is not necessary to disposition of
this motion, the court adopts neither parties' version of the
discussions that allegedly took place between Plaintiff and
Ericsson during June of 2001.
What is not in dispute is the fact that Plaintiff left work
early on July 2, 2001 and never returned to the company. What is
also not in dispute are the contents of correspondence sent
between Plaintiff and Kathy Raftery, Ericsson's Director of Human
Resources, following July 2. On July 3, 2001, Plaintiff sent a
letter to Ericsson demanding payment of severance benefits as a
consequence of his recent lay-off. Raftery responded to
Plaintiff's July 3 letter in a letter dated July 6, 2001. That
letter referred to the fact that three weeks prior to the date of
the letter, Plaintiff was given a position as a product marketing
manager in a different division of Ericsson and stated that
Plaintiff was expected to return to the company to assume his new
responsibilities. Raftery's July 6 further stated that if
Plaintiff did not return to the office by July 9, or inform the
company as to why he could not return, Ericsson would treat such
action as Plaintiff's voluntary resignation from the Company.
Plaintiff's response to Raftery's July 6 Letter is contained in
a letter of that same date. In his letter, Plaintiff states that
upon his receipt of the May 31 e-mail, he "recognized that
effective July 5, 2001[he] was officially laid-off by Ericsson."
As to Raftery's statement regarding Plaintiff's return to work by
July 9, Plaintiff responded that this statement was "rejected."
In a letter dated July 11, 2001, sent by Raftery to Plaintiff,
Raftery refers to the May 31 e-mail and notes that persons to be
laid off were to be informed of that fact on July 5, 2001.
Raftery's letter continues, "[f]or the last time, you were not
laid off in the most recent reduction-in-force." The letter
concludes, "[b]y your absolute refusal to return to work, you
your job. This does not entitle you to severance benefits. In
addition, it triggers certain repayment requirements you have to
Ericsson." When Plaintiff failed to return to Ericsson, he was
sent a letter by Ericsson's counsel, demanding that he reimburse
the Company $34,949.05. This amount was stated to ...