Fletcher v. Tufts University

Decision Date15 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A.02-10923-RCL.,CIV.A.02-10923-RCL.
PartiesMadeleine FLETCHER, Plaintiff, v. TUFTS UNIVERSITY and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts

Inga S. Bernstein, Zalkind, Rodriguez, Lunt & Duncan, Boston, MA, for Madeleine Fletcher, Plaintiff.

Stephen S. Churchill, Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch & Ford, LLP, David C. Henderson, Nutter, McClennen & Fish, LLP, James F. Kavanaugh, Jr., Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch & Ford, LLP, Boston, MA, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

LINDSAY, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Madeleine Fletcher ("Fletcher" or "the plaintiff") is a former employee of defendant Tufts University ("Tufts"). During the time of her employment, Tufts provided its employees, including Fletcher, with the opportunity to subscribe to a long-term disability benefits plan (the "LTD Plan" or "the Plan") issued by defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife"). Fletcher subscribed to the LTD Plan and, after being diagnosed with a debilitating mental disorder, sought and received long-term disability benefits under the Plan. Because MetLife determined that Fletcher's disability was the result of a mental illness and she was not institutionalized, MetLife terminated her long-term disability payments after two years, pursuant to the terms of the Plan. Had she suffered a physical disability, Fletcher's benefits would have continued until she reached age sixty-five.

The amended complaint is in three counts: count I charges Tufts with a violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12112; count II charges MetLife with a violation of Title III of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12182; and count III charges violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1), by both Tufts and MetLife. The plaintiff filed a motion to amend her complaint further to add MetLife to count I. That motion was denied without prejudice because the plaintiff failed to comply with the certification requirements of this court's Local Rule 7.1. The docket does not indicate that any further action has been taken by any of the parties regarding the motion.

Both defendants have moved to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

II. Factual Allegations

The following allegations are made in the amended complaint ("Compl.").

Fletcher became a professor of Spanish literature at Tufts in 1980. Compl. ¶ 4, 13. As noted above, Tufts provided Fletcher with long-term disability insurance pursuant to the LTD Plan. Compl. ¶¶ 5-6.

In April of 1998, Fletcher wrote a letter to one of her classes that triggered concerns about her mental health. Compl. ¶ 14. She was admitted to a hospital, where she was diagnosed by a psychiatrist with bipolar disorder, manic type, with psychotic features. Compl. ¶ 15. After her release from the hospital, Fletcher was treated by two psychiatrists who concluded that she had an ongoing psychotic disorder that rendered her "grossly disabled." Compl. ¶ 16. Tufts placed Fletcher on medical leave from September 1, 1998 through January 31, 1999. Compl. ¶ 17.

Following her medical leave, Fletcher remained unable to work, and MetLife approved her request for disability benefits pursuant to the terms of the Plan. Compl. ¶ 24. She received those benefits from February 28, 1999 to February 27, 2001. Compl. ¶¶ 24-25. On February 27, 2001, the benefits were terminated, because MetLife concluded that Fletcher suffered from a mental disability and was not confined to a hospital or other institution. Compl. ¶ 25. Under the terms of the Plan, a participant who is "disabled due to mental illness and not confined in a hospital or institution" is entitled to benefits for the lesser of twenty-four months or the maximum benefit duration otherwise applicable under the Plan. See Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants Tufts University's and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's Motion to Dismiss, Exh. C at 171 ("Plaintiff's Opposition"). It was under this provision of the Plan that Fletcher's disability benefits were terminated.

In July of 2001, Fletcher underwent a "return to work evaluation" by a physician, Dr. Harvey Waxman. In a report dated August 1, 2001, Dr. Waxman concluded that Fletcher's continuing disability rendered her incapable of performing the essential functions of her job, and that no accommodation could be made that would allow her to work. Compl. ¶¶ 34-36. Based on Dr. Waxman's report, Tufts informed Fletcher that she could not return to her faculty position at Tufts. Id. at ¶ 37.

On December 10, 2001, Fletcher requested that MetLife review its decision to terminate her benefits. Compl. ¶¶ 9, 29. At some point before the plaintiff made this request, her counsel spoke to an authorized representative of MetLife who told plaintiff's counsel that MetLife "could probably" waive the sixty-day deadline for requesting a review of the benefits determination. Compl. ¶ 30. Notwithstanding this assurance, MetLife denied as untimely the request for a review. Id. On the same day that she sought internal review from MetLife of the decision to terminate her benefits, Fletcher also filed, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), charges of discrimination against Tufts and MetLife. Compl. ¶ 7, Compl. Exh. A. The charges alleged violations of the ADA by both defendants. On February 20, 2002, Fletcher received "right to sue" notices from the EEOC. Compl. ¶ 8, Compl. Exh. B.

Fletcher filed this lawsuit on May 20, 2002, alleging violations of Title I and Title III of the ADA by Tufts and MetLife, respectively. She amended her complaint on October 1, 2002, to include a claim that both defendants violated ERISA by improperly classifying her disability as mental rather than physical. Compl. ¶¶ 46-52.

III. Discussion
A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true the well-pleaded factual allegations of the complaint, draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the plaintiff's favor and determine whether the complaint, so read, sets forth facts sufficient to justify recovery on any cognizable theory." Martin v. Applied Cellular Technology, Inc., 284 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir.2002). Dismissal is inappropriate unless "it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [her] claim[s] which would entitle [her] to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957).

B. Count One: Title I of the ADA

Title I of the ADA provides that "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to... employee compensation ... and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). In count I of the amended complaint, the plaintiff alleges that Tufts violated Title I by adopting and maintaining a long-term disability plan that discriminates against employees with mental disabilities. Specifically, Fletcher asserts that the LTD Plan discriminates against persons with mental disabilities by limiting to twenty-four months the period during which such persons are entitled to receive benefits if they are not confined in a hospital or institution, while allowing persons with physical disabilities to receive benefits until they reach the age of sixty-five irrespective of whether they are in a hospital or institution.

Tufts' response to count I of the plaintiff's claim is threefold. First, Tufts contends that the plaintiff is not a "qualified individual with a disability" under Title I of the ADA, and therefore lacks standing to sue under the statute. Second, Tufts asserts that the complaint should be dismissed as untimely. Finally, Tufts argues that, as a substantive matter, the ADA does not prohibit long-term disability plans, like the LTD Plan, from offering less coverage for mental disabilities than they offer for physical disabilities. I will address each of these issues in turn.

(1) Is the Plaintiff a "Qualified Individual" under Title I of the ADA?

Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against a "qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual...." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Thus, a predicate to protection under Title I is that the claimant be a qualified individual with a disability. See Weyer v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 198 F.3d 1104, 1108 (9th Cir.2000); ("The plain language of the act thus allows only those who are `qualified individuals' to bring suit.") Smith v. Midland Brake, Inc., 180 F.3d 1154, 1161 (10th Cir.1999) ("The language [of Title I of the ADA] reveals that a person must meet the threshold test of being a `qualified individual with a disability' in order to invoke the ADA."); Ford v. Schering-Plough Corp., 145 F.3d 601, 605 (3rd Cir.1998). ("Title I of the ADA restricts the ability to sue under its provisions to a `qualified individual' with a disability[,]")

Title I defines a "qualified individual with a disability" as "an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). Because the plaintiff is admittedly unable to perform the essential functions of her job, even with a reasonable accommodation, Tufts argues that she is not a "qualified individual" as expressly defined by Title I. Therefore, according to Tufts, the plaintiff falls outside the protection of the ADA. While the First Circuit has not yet addressed this issue, some courts have adopted Tufts' reading of the statute. See, e.g., Weyer, 198 F.3d at 1108-13 (holding that a totally disabled former employee is not a "qualified individual" under the...

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    ...court decisions which concluded Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of the disabled. Fletcher v. Tufts Univ. , 367 F.Supp.2d 99,109-114 (D. Mass. 2005) (“Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of persons with disabilities unless those distinctions ar......
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    ...court decisions which concluded Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of the disabled. Fletcher v. Tufts Univ. , 367 F.Supp.2d 99,109-114 (D. Mass. 2005) (“Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of persons with disabilities unless those distinctions ar......
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    ...court decisions which concluded Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of the disabled. Fletcher v. Tufts Univ., 367 F.Supp.2d 99,109-114 (D. Mass. 2005) (“Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of persons with disabilities unless those distinctions are......
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    ...court decisions which concluded Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of the disabled. Fletcher v. Tufts Univ. , 367 F.Supp.2d 99,109-114 (D. Mass. 2005) (“Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination among classes of persons with disabilities unless those distinctions ar......

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