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Vangas v. Montefiore Medical Center

United States District Court, S.D. New York

November 5, 2014



EDGARDO RAMOS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Mirelle Vangas was diagnosed with cancer on March 25, 2010. She was terminated by her employer Montefiore Medical Center ("MMC") on August 30, 2010, after she exhausted her Family Medical Leave Act leave of absence and was unable to return to work. Mrs. Vangas and her husband Alfredo Vangas, Jr. ("Plaintiffs") brought this action against MMC, Elizabeth Burns and Patricia Quinn ("Defendants"), [1] alleging, inter alia, that MMC violated the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act ("COBRA" or the "Act") by failing to properly send notification of Plaintiffs' right to continue coverage under MMC's medical plan following Mrs. Vangas' termination. Additionally, Mrs. Vangas alleged that Defendants failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), and failed to notify her of the cancellation of her employee benefits within five days of her termination from MMC in violation of the New York Labor Law ("NYLL"). Following a five-day trial in June 2014, the Court granted judgment as a matter of law to Mrs. Vangas on the NYLL claim. The jury then found in Mrs. Vangas' favor on the NYSHRL claim, [2] and awarded damages in the total amount of $541, 000.[3]

Pending before the Court are Plaintiffs' claims for relief under COBRA.[4] Plaintiffs argue that Defendant MMC failed to properly notify them of their right to continue coverage under MMC's medical plan, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1166(a)(4)(A). Compl. ¶¶ 118, 121. Specifically, Plaintiffs, who lived in the town Cornwall on Hudson, New York, claim that they did not receive proper notice of their COBRA rights because the notification letter was improperly addressed to the abbreviated "Cornwallonhuds, New York." Plaintiffs seek reimbursement of medical expenses, [5] statutory damages in the amount of $110 per day from the date MMC was obligated to provide notice until the date judgment is entered, [6] and attorney's fees and costs. Id. ¶¶ 119, 122. MMC contends that it fulfilled its obligations under COBRA because courts apply a good faith standard to the Act's notification provision.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds in favor of MMC on the COBRA claim and denies Plaintiffs' request for attorney's fees and costs.

I. Facts Adduced at Trial

Mirelle Vangas, an employee of MMC since 1989, was diagnosed with cancer on March 25, 2010. Transcript of Trial ("Tr.") 79:2, 78:14-15; Defs.' 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2. Mrs. Vangas took an immediate leave of absence from MMC upon her diagnosis. Tr. 78:18-21 (M. Vangas). Though Mrs. Vangas was scheduled to return to work on August 30, 2010, she was unable to do so because of new symptoms. Tr. 136:9-21 (M. Vangas). MMC terminated Mrs. Vangas on the same day. Tr. 443:8 (Kathleen Byrne).

Plaintiffs reside at 16 Wood Avenue, Cornwall on Hudson, New York 12520. Tr. 197:12-198:2 (M. Vangas). At trial, Defendants introduced a letter dated September 27, 2010, which was generated to notify Plaintiffs of their right under COBRA to continue medical coverage under MMC's medical plan. See Defs. Ex. C-3. Plaintiffs' street address and zip code are correctly reflected in the notification letter. However, the town name in the notice is abbreviated to "Cornwallonhuds." Id.

a. MMC Procedures for COBRA Notification

Eileen Montalto, the Director of Benefits at MMC, testified that COBRA gives the terminated employee the right to continue his or her employer-sponsored medical plans for themselves and their families upon the loss of benefits through their employment. Tr. 581:20-22. According to Ms. Montalto, MMC maintains a service agreement with WageWorks, an outside vendor, to administer MMC's COBRA benefits. Tr. 582:5-6, 582:8-10. Ms. Montalto testified concerning the procedures followed by WageWorks when an employee is terminated by MMC. Upon the termination of an employee, MMC sends WageWorks an electronic file relating to the employee through MMC's benefits administrator, Aon Hewitt. Tr. 582:14-17, 582:21-23. Typically within the next three to five business days after it receives a terminated employee's file, WageWorks will mail a letter to the employee that sets forth both the cost of COBRA coverage and the 60-day period within which the employee must enroll for the coverage. Tr. 582:14-17, 592:4-6. A copy of the letter purportedly mailed to Plaintiffs was received in evidence as Defs. Ex. C-3.[7] If the 60-day enrollment period elapses and the terminated employee does not enroll, WageWorks sends a letter notifying the employee that he or she is no longer eligible for the benefit. Tr. 586:8-12. A copy of the letter advising Plaintiffs that they were no longer eligible for coverage due to non-enrollment, which was purportedly mailed to Plaintiffs, was received in evidence as Defs. Ex. G-3.

b. MMC's Mailing of COBRA Notification to Plaintiffs

Mr. and Mrs. Vangas both testified that they never received the required COBRA notice.

Tr. 169:25, 467:15. Testimony presented at trial suggests that the COBRA notice was never received because Plaintiffs' address was entered incorrectly on the notice. According to Ms. Montalto, the "Cornwallonhuds" abbreviation would have been used because MMC's information system allows for 14 or 15 characters in the town' field, and any town name in excess of this limit is truncated. Tr. 594:1-4.[8]

Despite Plaintiffs' testimony that they never received the COBRA notice, Ms. Montalto testified that she has access to WageWorks' systems and was able to see that, in accordance with the procedures described above, the file was received by WageWorks on September 24, 2010, and that the letter was mailed on September 27, 2010. Tr. 593:3, 592:23-25.

Mrs. Vangas testified that in October 2010 she received a letter from MMC, dated September 23, 2010, informing her that her health benefits would continue through the end of the month of her last official day as a Montefiore associate. See Pls. Ex. 40.[9] The letter also indicated that WageWorks would be sending Mrs. Vangas a COBRA enrollment kit. Id. Importantly, like the COBRA notification letter at issue here, the September 23 letter also utilized the abbreviation "Cornwallonhuds, New York." Id. In addition, unlike the COBRA notification letter, the September 23 letter did not include the zip code. There is no dispute, however, that Mrs. Vangas did receive the September 23 letter. See Tr. 265:11. ...

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