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Godfrey v. BellSouth Telecommunications

July 26, 1996

BARBARA CAROL GODFREY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
BELLSOUTH TELECOMMUNICATIONS, INC.; SOUTH CENTRAL BELL, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, CROSS-APPELLEES.



Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. (No. CV94-C-1386-S), U.W. Clemon, Judge.

Before Carnes, Circuit Judge, and Fay and Gibson,*fn* Senior Circuit Judges.

Author: Fay

FAY, Senior Circuit Judge:

An employee of BellSouth Telecommunications ("BST") brought suit against the company to enforce the provisions of her sickness and disability benefit plans. The District Court found that the plaintiff was disabled under the terms of the plan contracts, and that the plan administrators had arbitrarily and capriciously rejected her claims. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Carol Godfrey began working for BellSouth in 1963. By 1990 she had earned several promotions. However, in June of 1990 she became ill. Her family doctor referred her to several specialists, who diagnosed her with: fibromyalgia; a thirty degree angle of pressure on the spine; lumbar disc syndrome; rotator cuff disease; severe sciatic pain and sacral pain; chronic dorsal lumbar strain; and joint swelling pain. The District Court found that the evidence conclusively proved that her pain was severe and disabling.

Ms. Godfrey was treated with several very potent drugs which she had to take on a daily basis, including: Lorcet Plus, a narcotic pain medication whose main side effect is drowsiness; Flexeril, a muscle relaxer whose main side effect is drowsiness; and Donnatal, an anti-colonurgic medicine whose main side effect is blurred vision. In addition, she had to undergo regular physical therapy.

In June of 1990, when she first started to experience the debilitating pain, Ms. Godfrey submitted a claim for benefits under BST's Sickness and Accident Disability (SAD) Plan. The District Court found that she provided BST with more than ample evidence of her disability, including physician's certificates from at least four doctors. BellSouth's manager denied Sickness Benefits and the review committees denied Ms. Godfrey's appeals.

In January of 1991, BST informed Ms. Godfrey that she would have to return to work or be discharged. At that point, according to the District Court:

with a dependent son, the plaintiff had no real choice other than to dope herself up with the medications that had been prescribed for her and get in the car, contrary to medical advice, drive herself to work, and then work while under the influence of a combination of very potent drugs.

Despite the debilitating pain, Ms. Godfrey was physically able to show up for work on a fairly regular basis. However, the District Court found that on some days she simply could not get to work. Because of her sickness, her attendance record was the worst of any employee in the unit, and she was disciplined for her absences. Because she returned to work, however, she did not become eligible for benefits under the Long-Term Disability Plan (LTD), which requires the exhaustion of fifty-two weeks of disability benefits under the sickness plan.

Ms. Godfrey filed complaints of discrimination and harassment with BST in November of 1991 and January of 1992. In addition, she filed grievances with the union. On January 20, 1993, all of her complaints were denied, except BST reduced one of her suspensions by two days. She filed suit on May 5, 1994 in state court.

The case was removed to federal court. Godfrey amended her complaint to add a claim under ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461. The District Court ruled that Godfrey was not entitled to extra-contractual or punitive damages under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), § 1132(a)(3), or § 1140. After a bench trial, the court found that Godfrey was disabled under the terms of the sickness and disability benefit plans from June of 1990 to October 1, 1993. The court issued an injunction ordering BST to comply with ERISA and pay Godfrey $58,300.50 in benefits. BST appealed the judgment. Godfrey cross-appealed the District Court's determination that she was not entitled to extra-contractual or punitive damages.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review conclusions of law de novo but do not disturb findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. See U.S. v. Thomas, 62 F.3d 1332, 1336 (11th Cir.1995), cert. denied, U.S., 116 S. Ct. 1058, 134 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1996). Equitable remedies will not be disturbed unless the District Court abused its discretion or made an error of law, or unless the findings of fact are not supported by the evidence. See Planned Parenthood Ass'n of Atlanta Area, Inc. v. Miller, 934 F.2d 1462, 1471 (11th Cir.1991).

Where the administrator of an ERISA benefits plan has discretionary authority to determine eligibility for benefits, a court reviews that determination under the arbitrary and capricious standard. Brown v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, 898 F.2d 1556, 1559 (11th Cir.1990). However, such a determination is not entitled ...


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