Court Finds no Interference of Benefits in Excessive Absence Termination

February 5, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida has ruled that Lockheed Martin did not violate the Employee Retirement Income Security Act's (ERISA) interference of benefits provision when it terminated an employee for excessive absences.

Recognizing that circumstantial evidence relied on by Catherine M. Mundale to prove her claim shifted the burden of proof to the employer, the court found there was no evidence that suggested Lockheed Martin was motivated to terminate Mundale due to the cost of her short-term disability benefits. The court noted that Mundale was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan for poor performance and excessive absences before her application for short-term disability benefits.

According to the court’s opinion, Mundale was not terminated until after Cigna denied her request for short-term disability benefits and she refused to return to work or provide medical documentation excusing her from work. The court pointed out that Lockheed Martin had no decisionmaking authority or influence over Cigna’s decision to deny short-term benefits.

Mundale began working for Lockheed in October 2006, and five months into her employment Lockheed began documenting her excessive absences and tardiness. Mundale provided various explanations for her attendance issues, including car trouble, plumbing issues, a home security alarm issue, and an forgotten medical appointment until February or March of 2007, when severe cramps, nausea, vomiting, and pain in her esophagus led her to cite medical issues as her reason for missing work.

On April 27, 2007, Mundale was issued a written warning for her unsatisfactory performance, including her failure to produce timely and accurate work, and her excessive absences, and she was placed on a performance improvement plan. As part of this plan, Mundale was instructed to provide documentation from her doctor for any future absences caused by illness and was warned that failure to provide documentation would result in an unexcused absence and unpaid leave, and possible disciplinary action.

On April 30, 2007, Mundale applied for short term disability leave through Cigna, Lockheed’s third-party benefits provider, which initially approved the leave, contingent upon medical review and approval. Mundale provided doctors’ notes that excused her from work until May 28. However, she did not return to work on May 28 or provide a doctor’s note excusing her.

In the meantime, Cigna obtained Mundale’s medical information and ultimately determined on June 5, 2007, that she would be denied short term disability coverage, saying “[t]he medical documentation provided does not support your inability to work as of April 30, 2007.”

Upon notification of Mundale’s denial of benefits, Lockheed again requested medical documentation to support Mundale’s continued absences and advised her that failure to either return to work or provide medical documentation excusing her from work would “result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Mundale was terminated on June 8, 2007. In January 2008, Mundale filed a lawsuit alleging that Lockheed terminated her employment in retaliation for her requesting short-term benefits and to interfere with her future use of benefits.

The case is Mundale v. Lockheed Martin Corp.,M.D. Fla., No. 8:08-CV-217-T-24-TBM, 1/26/09.

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