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Napodano v. Ericsson Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Sherman Division

August 15, 2019

XIEN HUANG NAPODANO, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Caleb Napodano
v.
ERICSSON INC. SHORT TERM DISABILITY PLAN

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          AMOS L. MAZZANT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the Parties' respective motions for summary judgment (Dkt. #10; Dkt. #12). After careful consideration, Defendant's motion will be granted while Plaintiff's will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Caleb Napodano[1] worked at Ericsson Inc. (“Ericsson”) and was a member of its various employee benefits plans, including its Long-Term Disability Plan and Short-Term Disability Plan. Both plans provide employees with some or all of their income while they are on leave from work due to a disability. On August 22, 2017, Napodano placed a signed letter on his manager's chair, instructing Ericsson's Human Resources team to “consider today Tuesday 08/22/2017 [his] last working day.” (Dkt. #12, Exhibit 2 at p. 390). Napodano explained that he was “resigning due to on-going illness issues with [his] health, ” that the HR Team “w[ould] find [his] work laptop below [his] letter of resignation, and [that his] work badge w[ould] be left downstairs with the security officer.” (Dkt. #12, Exhibit 2 at p. 390). Ericsson construed Napodano's letter as a resignation and “honored [his] request to process the resignation with the effective date of 8/22.” (Dkt. #12, Exhibit 2 at p. 94).

         A few days later, Napodano submitted a claim for long-term disability benefits to Prudential Insurance Company of America (“Prudential”), the claims administrator for Ericsson's long-term disability plan. Prudential subsequently denied the claim. It noted that, to be eligible for long-term disability benefits, claimants are required to seek short-term disability benefits first. Prudential then referred Napodano's claim for long-term disability benefits to Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc. (“Sedgwick”), the claims administrator for Ericsson's Short-Term Disability Plan. Sedgwick agreed to process his claim as one for short-term disability benefits.

         Sedgwick denied the claim about a week later, finding him ineligible for benefits under Ericsson's Short-Term Disability Plan. The corresponding Summary Plan Description (the “SPD”), which sets out the benefits the plan offers, provides that “coverage under the Plan ends on the earliest of” four dates. These include:

1. The date the Plan terminates;
2. The date [the claimant] no longer meet[s] the definition of Eligible Employee;
3. The last day [the claimant is] in Active Employment; and
4. The date [the claimant is] no longer in Active Employment due to a Disability that is not covered under the Plan.

(Dkt. #12, Exhibit 1 at p. 15). Ericsson argues that, once Napodano resigned, he was no longer an “Eligible Employee.” (Dkt. #12, Exhibit 1 at p. 15). Napodano questions whether his letter can constitute a formal resignation. He contends that, based on a conversation he had with Ericsson's Human Resources team, he believed that he needed to resign to be eligible for long-term disability benefits. He also notes that, because the fourth possible termination date is triggered only if he is “no longer in Active Employment due to a Disability . . . not covered under the Plan, ” his coverage did not end because he stopped working due to a disability that was covered (Dkt. #12, Exhibit 1 at p. 15) (emphasis added). Ericsson, on the other hand, stresses that coverage ends on the “earliest” of the four dates and that, once Napodano's employment status ended, the second possible termination date went into effect since he was no longer an “Eligible Employee.” (Dkt. #12, Exhibit 1 at p. 15).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The purpose of summary judgment is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Summary judgment is proper under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. The trial court “must resolve all reasonable doubts in favor of the party opposing the motion for summary judgment.” Casey Enters., Inc. v. Am. Hardware Mut. Ins. Co., 655 F.2d 598, 602 (5th Cir. 1981).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of informing the court of its motion and identifying “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the movant bears the burden of proof on a claim or defense for which it is moving for summary judgment, it must come forward with evidence that establishes “beyond peradventure all of the essential elements of the claim or defense.” Fontenot v. Upjohn Co., 780 F.2d 1190, 1194 (5th Cir. 1986). Where the nonmovant bears the burden of proof, the movant may discharge the burden by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmovant's case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325; Byers v. Dall. Morning News, Inc., 209 F.3d 419, 424 (5th Cir. 2000). Once the movant has carried its burden, the nonmovant must “respond to the motion for summary judgment by setting forth particular facts indicating there is a genuine issue for trial.” Byers, 209 F.3d at 424 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49). A nonmovant must present affirmative evidence to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257. Mere denials of material facts, unsworn allegations, or arguments and assertions in briefs or legal memoranda will not suffice to carry this burden. Rather, the Court requires “significant probative evidence” from the ...


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