Judge allows suit by former juvenile detention center counselor to proceed

By Jon Campisi | Jan 30, 2012

A former employee of a Philadelphia youth detention center can move forward with his claims that the city failed to offer him the COBRA health insurance extension following his termination, a federal judge has ruled.

In a memorandum order Jan. 25, U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe denied the City of Philadelphia’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by Tony Dphax King, Jr., a former youth detention counselor who was fired from his job after an extended medical leave relating to an October 2007 incident in which a juvenile broke King’s pinky finger.

After the work-related incident, King was approved for 12 weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, court papers state.

King’s medical benefits were subsequently terminated on Jan. 31, 2008, and he was officially fired from his job on May 30, 2008 after his unpaid leave period expired.

King filed a lawsuit against the city on May 5, 2010 alleging wrongful termination and violations of the city’s civil service regulations and its Home Rule Charter.

King also claimed that the city failed to provide the required notification regarding his right to elect to continue his health insurance coverage pursuant to COBRA.

The court initially dismissed all claims by memorandum opinion in late October 2010, but granted King leave to amend his COBRA claims against the city, according to background information found in the latest court ruling.

King’s first amended complaint was filed in early December 2010, which the city answered and filed its own motion for summary judgment on the pleadings.

King then sought leave to file a second amended complaint, which the court ultimately granted. The second amended complaint was filed on Nov. 22, 2011.

The city soon moved to dismiss this complaint as well, but Rufe refused to do so, ordering the case to move forward.

In her ruling, Rufe wrote that there were questions that still lingered involving the statute of limitations when it comes to electing COBRA following a job termination.

The city had moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that King failed to opt for COBRA within two years of a “qualifying event.”

King had counter-argued that his claim was filed within the two-year time frame, and, in the alternative, that a four-year statute of limitations period was applicable.

The city argued that there was a two-year statute because King’s claim is akin to a tort claim; King argued that his claim was analogous to a breach of contract claim, which has the four-year statute of limitations.

The other discrepancy had to do with what constituted the so-called “qualifying event,” with the city arguing that the event occurred on Jan. 28, 2008 when King exhausted his medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and was approved for unpaid medical leave as per city policy.

King had argued that the qualifying event was his May 30, 2008 termination.

Rufe’s opinion signaled mixed feelings on the matter.

“As the purpose of COBRA is to ensure an employee’s access to continuous health care coverage, the Court finds that the exhaustion of King’s right to health insurance coverage under the FMLA on January 25, 2008 was a qualifying event in this case,” the judge wrote. “At that point he was no longer entitled to participate in the City’s group health plan without electing COBRA coverage, and therefore that is a ‘qualifying event’ consistent with the purpose of the legislation.”

However, Rufe also wrote that King’s May 2008 termination may have created a second qualifying event, “or, alternatively, the statute of limitations may have been tolled during the period between the termination of benefits and the termination of employment. These questions are not ripe for resolution at this point in the litigation.”

Rufe allowed the case to proceed to discovery.

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