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Chang v. Pfizer, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 9, 2017

PFIZER, INC., Defendant.

          Christopher J. Carcich, Esq. Michael Malatino, Esq. Deutsch Atkins, P.C. Hackensack, N.J. Counsel for Plaintiff

          Jennifer B. Courtian, Esq. Mina M. Wood, Esq. Kevin G. Lauri, Esq. Jackson Lewis P.C. New York, NY Counsel for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Nashonie Chang (“Plaintiff”) brings this Action against Pfizer Inc (“Defendant”), asserting claims for breach of contract, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, willful misconduct, and equitable relief arising from Defendant's determination that Plaintiff did not qualify for short-term disability benefits. (See generally Am. Notice of Removal Ex. A (“Complaint”) (Dkt. No. 8).)[1] Defendant removed the case from state court on the ground that portions of Plaintiff's claims are completely preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. Defendant has filed a Partial Motion To Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), seeking to dismiss the portion of Plaintiff's claims that are preempted by ERISA. (Dkt. No. 25.) Plaintiff has filed a Motion To Remand the case back to state court and for attorney's fees incurred as a result of the allegedly improper removal. (Dkt. No. 28.) For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion To Remand is denied, Plaintiff's request for attorney's fees is denied as moot, and Defendant's Partial Motion to Dismiss is granted.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are drawn from Plaintiff's Complaint and the documents appended thereto, and are taken as true for the purpose of resolving the Motions.

         Plaintiff began working for Defendant in February 2002 as a packaging employee in Defendant's Brooklyn, New York plant. (Compl. ¶ 3.) “Not long after” Plaintiff began working for Defendant, she experienced “a severe sinus infection.” (Id. ¶ 4.) Plaintiff continued to work at Defendant's Brooklyn plant in various capacities until she was terminated in 2009. (Id. ¶¶ 5- 8.) Plaintiff was rehired by Defendant in April 2011 as a “Managing - Engineer.” (Id. ¶¶ 10- 11.) During her employment with Defendant, Plaintiff was a participant in various employee benefits plans, including short-term disability (“STD”) and long-term disability (“LTD”) plans. (Id. ¶ 12.)

         Plaintiff continued to suffer from issues related to her sinuses after being rehired. (See Id. ¶ 15.) On March 4, 2014, Plaintiff went to work “despite having breathing difficulties.” (Id. ¶ 16.) She was subsequently discovered in a hallway struggling to breathe and was “rushed to medical and eventually sent home.” (Id.) Plaintiff was thereafter seen by “many” medical professionals, (id. ¶ 18), who eventually diagnosed her with “hypersensitive airway disease grouped with Bronchitis and Asthma, ” (id. ¶ 20). After missing four days of work, Plaintiff applied for and was granted STD benefits, which are payable for up to six months if an employee is “seriously ill.” (Id. ¶¶ 19, 21, 52 (internal quotation marks omitted).)

         Despite ongoing efforts to treat Plaintiff's condition, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's STD benefits on May 12, 2014, (id. ¶ 28), because Plaintiff did not provide sufficient evidence to establish she was receiving “active and effective treatment, ” (id. ¶ 29 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Id. Ex. D). Plaintiff appealed this determination, explaining that she was being treated by eight different healthcare providers. (Id. ¶ 30; see also Id. Ex. E.) Defendant denied the appeal on the ground that Plaintiff provided “insufficient medical documentation of ongoing medical treatment.” (Id. ¶ 32 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Id. Ex. F.) Plaintiff alleges that the STD plan requires neither “active and effective treatment” nor “ongoing medical treatment.” (Id. ¶ 33 (internal quotation marks omitted).)

         After being informed that her appeal had been denied, Plaintiff immediately contacted Dr. Nicole Schaffer (“Dr. Schaffer”), the doctor who approved the denial of Plaintiff's STD benefits. (Id. ¶ 34.) Plaintiff “pleaded” with Dr. Schaffer to reinstate Plaintiff's STD benefits, but Dr. Schaffer accused Plaintiff of “being off someplace” and explained that Defendant revoked Plaintiff's STD benefits because Plaintiff “was not getting better anytime soon.” (Id. ¶ 35 (internal quotation marks omitted).) Plaintiff then asked whether she should apply for LTD benefits. (Id. ¶ 36.) Dr. Schaffer allegedly responded that Plaintiff was never going to get LTD benefits because Plaintiff needed to receive STD benefits for six months to qualify. (Id.) The LTD plan summary itself reflects that a disabled employee “may be eligible to begin receiving LTD benefits after 180 consecutive days of disability.” (Decl. of Jennifer B. Courtian (“Courtian Decl.”) Ex. 3, at 7 (“LTD Plan Summary”) (Dkt. No. 27).)[2]

         Plaintiff then asked Defendant for clearance to return to work, or in the alternative, the ability to work from home. (Compl. ¶ 37.) Both requests were denied, and Plaintiff was terminated on July 11, 2014. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38.) Since that time, Plaintiff has lost her health insurance and been rendered homeless. (Id. ¶¶ 40, 49.) She has been unable to have the surgery necessary to treat her sinus condition. (Id. ¶ 47.)

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant breached its contractual obligation to provide Plaintiff STD benefits. (Id. ¶ 48.) She contends that she was “seriously ill” within the meaning of the STD plan during the relevant period of time and that Defendant imposed the “active and effective treatment” and “ongoing medical treatment” requirements as a pretext to deny her benefits. (Id. ¶¶ 53-54 (internal quotation marks omitted).) By impermissibly denying benefits, Defendant prevented Plaintiff from obtaining LTD benefits. (Id. ¶ 57.) Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction requiring Defendant to retroactively reinstate her benefits to the date of her termination, “including application for long-term disability.” (Id. ¶ 71.)

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff initiated this Action on October 23, 2015, by filing the Complaint in state court. She asserted four causes of action: (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing; (3) willful misconduct; and (4) equitable relief. On November 16, 2015, Defendant removed the Action to federal court. (See Notice of Removal (Dkt. No. 1).) Pursuant to a Scheduling Order, Defendant filed its Partial Motion To Dismiss and accompanying papers on March 25, 2016. (Dkt. Nos. 25-27.) Plaintiff filed her Motion To Remand and accompanying papers on March 29, 2016. (Dkt. Nos. 28-29.) Plaintiff filed her opposition to Defendant's Partial Motion To Dismiss on April 27, 2016, (Dkt. No. 36), and Defendant filed opposition papers to Plaintiff's Motion To Remand on the same date, (Dkt. No. 39).

         II. Discussion

         A. ...

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