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West v. NexPress Solutions

February 11, 2008

JENNIFER WEST, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NEXPRESS SOLUTIONS, INC., EASTMAN KODAK COMPANY, AND NEXPRESS SOLUTIONS, INC. SEVERANCE BENEFIT PLAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Jennifer West ("West"), a former employee of defendants NexPress Solutions ("NexPress") and Eastman Kodak Company ("Kodak") brings this action pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, ("ERISA"), claiming that the defendants have improperly denied her severance benefits. Specifically, plaintiff claims that upon the termination of her employment from NexPress, a wholly owned subsidiary of Kodak, she was not credited with 19 years of employment with Kodak, and instead, was paid benefits based only on 5 years of employment with NexPress. While West received payment equivalent to two weeks of salary for every year of her employment with NexPress, she contends that she is entitled to and additional payment of 2 weeks salary for each of the 19 years she was employed by Kodak.

Defendants claim that West is entitled to severance benefits based only on her employment with NexPress. In support of this contention, defendants argue that because West voluntarily left employment with Kodak in April of 1998, and worked for over one year at another company before being hired at NexPress, she had a break in service, and therefore is not entitled to benefits based on her former employment with Kodak.

Defendants move for summary judgment against West claiming that there are no material issues of fact in dispute, and that as a matter of law, they are entitled to judgment in their favor. Plaintiff opposes defendants' motion, and cross-moves for summary judgment seeking a declaration that she is entitled to severance benefits based on her entire career with Kodak and NexPress. Finally, defendants move to strike portions of the plaintiff's affidavit submitted in support of her motion for summary judgment.

For the reasons set forth below, I deny without prejudice defendants' motion for summary judgment, deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and deny as moot defendants' motion to strike.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Jennifer West began working for defendant Eastman Kodak Company in April of 1979. She worked continuously for Kodak until April 1998, at which time she left the company to work for Besco Graphics Systems Corp. ("Besco"). Besco is neither related to nor affiliated with either NexPress or Kodak. Approximately a year and a half later, in October, 1999, plaintiff was hired by NexPress Solutions, Inc. At the time, NexPress was an independent company that was not affiliated with Kodak. In May, 2004, Kodak purchased NexPress, and it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kodak. Plaintiff worked at NexPress until September 2005, at which time her job was eliminated and she was laid off in connection with a company-wide downsizing.

NexPress maintained a severance benefit policy for the benefit of employees whose jobs were eliminated as part of any company-wide layoffs. Pursuant to the policy, as explained in the Summary Plan Description, affected employees were to receive a payment equivalent to two-weeks salary for every year they had been employed at NexPress or Kodak. Specifically, the plan provides in relevant part that the benefit allowance "is based on the number of full years of continuous or adjusted service that [an employee] ha[s] completed as of the last day worked." NexPress Severance Benefit Plan at p. 3 (Attached as Exhibit A to Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Facts)(emphasis added).

Following her layoff, West received 10 weeks of severance pay based on her five full years of employment with NexPress. West, however, claimed that she was owed severance benefits for her previous 19 full years of employment with Kodak, and submitted a claim for those benefits to the Plan Administrator for the Severance Benefits Plan. In her request for additional benefits, plaintiff raised only the issue of her previous employment with Kodak, and did not raise any claim that she had been promised such benefits, that other similarly situated employees received such benefits, or that NexPress had engaged in some course of conduct that would suggest she was entitled to such benefits. By letter dated November 7, 2006, the Plan Administrator denied West's claim for additional benefits on grounds that because there had been a break in service between plaintiff's employment with Kodak and NexPress, she was not entitled to severance benefits for her employment with Kodak.

By letter dated January 3, 2006, West appealed the Plan Administrator's determination. In her January 3, 2006 letter, West alleged that the Plan Administrator had failed to correctly interpret the Plan with respect to her adjusted service, and that similarly situated employees had been granted the benefits she sought. By letter dated January 19, 2006, the Plan Administrator again found that the break in service of over one year between plaintiff's employment with Kodak and NexPress extinguished her right to severance pay based on her service to Kodak. Thereafter, plaintiff filed the instant case.

DISCUSSION

I. The Parties' Motions for Summary Judgment

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that 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." When considering a motion for summary judgment, all inferences and ambiguities must be resolved in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought. R.B. Ventures, Ltd. v. Shane, 112 F.3d 54 (2nd Cir. 1997). If, after considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court ...


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