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James D. Hills v. Praxair

May 29, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court



Plaintiff James D. Hills brings this employment discrimination action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112-12117 ("ADA"), the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-191, 110 Stat. 1936 (1996) ("HIPAA"), and state law. Plaintiff's claims arise out of his employment with Praxair, Inc., during which time various defendants allegedly interfered with his medical treatment, denied him benefits and accommodations, released confidential medical information, and ultimately terminated his employment. Presently before this Court are motions to dismiss or, alternatively, for judgment on the pleadings by eight groups of defendants representing the 30 individuals and entities against whom Plaintiff brings his claims. These groupings, and their accompanying motions are as follows:

* Susan Duffy and Cory Loudenslager (the "Duffy Defendants") jointly move to dismiss. (Docket No. 13.)

* Linda Joseph and Ginger Schroeder (the "Joseph Defendants") jointly move to dismiss. (Docket No. 14.)

* Praxair Inc., on behalf of itself and Steve Angel, James Breedlove, Sally Savoia, John Day, Christopher Tiberio, Dawn Immohr, Richard Petronio, Garry Breitbach, Linda Morgan, Connie Krysiak, Dr. Gordon Steinagle (collectively "Praxair") moves to dismiss. (Docket No. 19.)*fn1

* Broadspire Services, Inc., on behalf of itself and Crawford & Company, Inc., Ken Martino, Keith Wesley, Eric Clavell, Deana June (collectively "Broadspire") moves to dismiss. (Docket No. 24.)

* Old Republic Insurance Company, on behalf of itself and Aldo Zucoro (collectively "Old Republic") moves to dismiss. (Docket No. 36.)

* Aetna, Inc., on behalf of itself, Ronald Williams, and Mark Bertolini (collectively "Aetna") moves to dismiss. (Docket No. 39.)

* Leonard Kaplan moves for judgment on the pleadings. (Docket No. 46.) * Dr. Melvin Brothman moves to dismiss. (Docket No. 49.)

As discussed below, these motions are granted and Plaintiff's claims are dismissed, with the partial exception of the claims against Praxair, Inc. and Aetna, Inc.

Prior to reaching the grounds for this conclusion, this Court must address Plaintiff's response, dated October 17, 2011, which, while having crossed out the words "FIRST AMENDED COMPLAINT" is, in fact, an amended complaint.*fn2 Plaintiff has even attached a copy of his original August 11, 2011 complaint to his response, in partial compliance with this Court's local rules. See L.R. 15(a).

Plaintiff's amended complaint changes none of the substantive claims from the original complaint, but does add a table detailing which of the various counts go against which defendants. It also includes, underneath each numbered paragraph, a detailed listing of all the counts to which that factual allegation relates. Defendants, after initially arguing in their motions that Plaintiff's complaint failed to differentiate between them or specify as to whom his claims applied, have generally treated Plaintiff's response as an amended pleading.

District courts have broad discretion to grant a party leave to amend its pleadings and the federal rules dictate that leave to amend is freely granted when justice so requires. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15 (a)(2). What this Court interprets as a proposed amendment substantially clarifies Plaintiff's claims. Further, defendants' responses to the revised pleading demonstrates that they would suffer little prejudice from accepting Plaintiff's submission as an amended complaint. Accordingly, this Court will consider Plaintiff's "Response to Motions" (Docket No. 27) as a motion to amend his complaint, and this Court will henceforth refer to that submission as Plaintiff's complaint.*fn3 Having so found, and for the sake of efficiency and expediency, as well as because the amended pleading raises no new claims or factual allegations, this Court will resolve defendants' eight pending motions as against this first amended complaint.


A. Facts

The facts in this case are complex and span over more than three years time. This Court will, for the sake of convenience and clarity, divide the relevant facts according to their chronological and topical significance.*fn4 These facts are taken from Plaintiff's amended complaint and the exhibits identified in the exhibit list attached to that complaint, as well as from Plaintiff's opposing memoranda. See Brandon v. O'Mara, No. 10 Civ. 5174(RJH), 2011 WL 4478492, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2011).

1. Employment Prior to the March 20, 2008 Accident

Plaintiff was hired by Praxair, Inc. on January 11, 1999. (Am. Comp. ¶ 38, Docket No. 27.) Plaintiff worked as a senior engineer, whose work included overseas travel to various locations. (Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 16.)*fn5 In the course of a pre-employment physical Plaintiff disclosed various disabilities, and thereafter enrolled in the Short Term Disability ("STD") and Long Term Disability ("LTD") benefit plans, administered through Aetna, Inc. (Am. Comp. ¶¶ 38-39.) Plaintiff thereafter, in February of 2007, was diagnosed with severe bilateral spinal stenosis and approved for benefits pursuant to the STD benefit plan from February of 2007 until May 21, 2007. (Id. ¶¶ 40, 42.)

i. Workplace Environment

Following his diagnosis, Plaintiff was allegedly threatened with termination on a number of occasions. On February 16, 2007, Plaintiff's former supervisors, defendants Breitbach and Petronio, as well as Krysiak, a Praxair, Inc. employee, threatened Plaintiff with termination should he not maintain his regular workload while on disability leave. (Id. ¶ 43.) The same defendants threatened Plaintiff again on May 21, 2007, this time warning that Plaintiff would be terminated from his position if he took additional time off for disability-related reasons. (Id. ¶ 49.) Afterwards, sometime in July of 2007, Krysiak again threatened Plaintiff with termination, this time for violating Praxair, Inc.'s "People Excellence Policy." (Id. ¶ 52.) Throughout this period, until March of 2008, Praxair, Inc. denied Plaintiff promotions and transfers, as well as other, unspecified, benefits. (Id. ¶ 55.)

The stress and anxiety of Plaintiff's disability and the threats of termination led him to consider getting mental health treatment. He was warned, however, by defendant and nurse Linda Morgan that doing so was "a career ender" and would, itself, result in termination. (Id. ¶ 47; Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 6.) Plaintiff opted not to seek mental health treatment. (Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 6.)

ii. Disability Coverage and Treatment

Contemporaneous with the problems Plaintiff was experiencing at work, he was also encountering problems dealing with Aetna, Inc., Praxair's claim administrator. Aetna, Inc. denied receiving various pieces of unspecified medical information sent by Plaintiff. (Am. Comp. ¶ 44.) In response to a request for medical records, Plaintiff received, along with other documents, an "AUTHORIZATION TO SHARE AND USE MEDICAL INFORMATION," in his name, but that did not carry his original signature. (Id. ¶ 50.)*fn6

Further inquiry revealed that the original had been destroyed pursuant to company policy. (Id.) Aetna, Inc. also failed to provide a disability rating criteria, on the basis that Aetna does "not utilize specific rating criteria's [sic] in assessing disability, as our decisions are based on your disability." (Pl.'s Ex. F.)

Despite basing its decision on Plaintiff's disability, Aetna, Inc. allegedly downgraded the severity of Plaintiff's condition. (Am. Comp. ¶ 44.)*fn7 Then, on August 20, 2007, Plaintiff was informed that as a result of a billing error, Aetna was retroactively denying benefit payments from April 8, 2007 to August 20, 2007. (Id. ¶ 53.)

Praxair, Inc., through Nurse Morgan, also ordered Plaintiff to stop seeing his treating physician, a neurosurgeon, and instead commence treatment with Dr. Leonard Kaplan. (Id. ¶ 46.) Praxair, Inc. allegedly described Dr. Kaplan, also a defendant in this action, as "Praxair's neurosurgeon," though, as Plaintiff would later discover, Kaplan was not a neurological specialist. (Id.)

Upon Plaintiff's return to work in May of 2007, Plaintiff requested various workplace accommodations. These included an anti-fatigue mat, a hands-free handset, an adjustable chair and stand-up workstation, and travel accommodations, which included more leg room and the ability to get up and move during flights. (Id. ¶ 48; Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 12.) These requests were denied for several months until Plaintiff put them in writing, at which point the accommodations were granted, including ones Plaintiff did not request, with the exception of his requested travel accommodations. (Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 12.)

2. Employment Following the March 20, 2008 Accident

On March 20, 2008, Plaintiff was returning from a business trip when he was hit by a motor vehicle. (Id. ¶ 56.) As a result of the motor vehicle accident ("MVA"), Plaintiff suffered various injuries, including to his head, necessitating treatment at Buffalo General Hospital. (Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 17.) Plaintiff immediately contacted Praxair, Inc. to make them aware of the situation. (Am. Comp. ¶ 57.)

i. Post-MVA Disability Coverage and Treatment

Upon being discharged from the hospital with a neck brace, Plaintiff sought treatment with Kaplan on March 21, 2008. Plaintiff informed Kaplan that he had been instructed, while at the hospital, to seek treatment from a neurosurgeon for his injuries. Kaplan told Plaintiff to "lose the neck brace" and dismissed Plaintiff without further analysis.

(Id. ¶ 58.) Thereafter, on March 23, Plaintiff experienced worsening symptoms and went to the Kenmore Mercy Emergency Room where he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. Plaintiff later learned that Kaplan was, in fact, not a neurosurgeon, when Kaplan's receptionist corrected Plaintiff that Kaplan was actually an osteopathic physician. Plaintiff then ceased treatment with him, in favor of specialist care elsewhere. (Am. Comp. ¶ 59; Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 22.)

On September 18, 2008, Plaintiff was approved for long-term disability benefits pursuant to the LTD plan. (Am. Comp. ¶ 70.) Less than a year later, Praxair, Inc. notified Plaintiff that he would need to apply for social security benefits, or have his LTD benefits significantly reduced. (Id. ¶ 71.) Plaintiff applied for, but was denied, benefits. (Id. ¶ 72.) Subsequently, Aetna, Inc. reduced Plaintiff's benefits on June 1, 2009, and terminated his benefits on July 10, 2010. (Id. ¶¶ 73-74.)

Plaintiff scheduled a "Return to Work" physical with defendant Dr. Gordon Steinagle for April 16, 2010. (Pl.'s Ex. L.)*fn8 Plaintiff went to his appointment on April 15, 2010, but was advised by the receptionist that the doctor could not see him that day.*fn9 Apparently Steinagle then came to the front desk to speak with Plaintiff and directed him into a storage closet, where he stated that he had been directed by Praxair, Inc. not to see Plaintiff and had been ordered not to say more. (Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 33.) On Plaintiff's insistence, Steinagle handwrote a note, which said: "We were advised to have you contact your carrier (Workers Compensation/Long Term Disability) we were advised that we cannot see you today for Praxair." (Pl.'s Ex. M.) A letter by Praxair Inc., dated May 3, 2010, states that Plaintiff was required to first consult his own physician and the physicians previously seen in connection with his workers' compensation and LTD benefits claims. (Pl.'s Ex. N.) Only once those doctors had approved Plaintiff to return to work, could he be seen by Steinagle for purposes of a return-to-work physical. (Id.)

Following this incident, on June 8, 2011 Plaintiff sought treatment with defendant Dr. Melvin Brothman. Brothman examined Plaintiff and informed him that he had a torn labrum in his right hip. (Am. Comp. ¶ 88.) Despite so informing Plaintiff, Brothman then issued a written report denying the right hip injury. (Id.)

ii. Workers' Compensation

Following the MVA, Praxair, Inc. denied Plaintiff's workers' compensation claim. Plaintiff initiated a workers' compensation proceeding. During this proceeding, Broadspire Services, Inc., the administrator of Praxair's Workers' Compensation Insurance, was represented by defendants Susan Duffy and Corey Loudenslager. Praxair, Inc., affirmed that, as late as January 26, 2010, Plaintiff remained an employee with them. (Am. Comp. ¶ 75.) At a February 5, 2010 workers' compensation hearing, Loudenslager stated to the Administrative Law Judge in charge of the proceeding that "[i]t is our position that he [Hills] can still do that [his job]." (Id. ¶ 76) (alterations in original).*fn10 Defendants also attempted to settle the matter, in February and April of 2010, to no avail. (Id. ¶ 77; Pl.'s Ex. O, ¶ 32.)

On February 10, 2010, the New York State Workers' Compensation Board determined that Plaintiff had a temporary partial disability. (Pl.'s Ex. T, p. 5.) Plaintiff was directed to participate in a vocational rehabilitation assessment to determine his ability to work. (Id.) Plaintiff does not appear to have participated in this program, and was criticized at the April 13, 2010 workers' compensation hearing by an administrative law judge. (Id. at 6.) Between these two events, on April 8, 2010, defendants allegedly modified the physical requirements of his former position of senior engineer, and backdated them to April 8, 2008. (Am. Comp. ¶ 79.)*fn11

Plaintiff went on to challenge the Workers' Compensation Board's determination of partial disability, which resulted in a decision by the Workers' Compensation Board, on August 25, 2010 that found Plaintiff totally disabled. (Pl.'s Ex. T, p. 7.) Defendants have appealed this ...

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