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In an apparent case of first impression, a Northern District of New York judge held on Monday that an employer did not meet its notification obligations under COBRA, a federally mandated plan for health insurance, when it provided an employee with insurance information and asked him to relay it to his presumably ex-spouse. The odd case before U.S. District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn stems from a peculiar fact pattern involving a man who obtained an ex parte foreign divorce, married his secretary and then attempted to drop his estranged wife from a group health insurance plan. Kahn said it is per se unreasonable to expect that an estranged spouse will fulfill what is really the employer’s obligation. Phillips v. Saratoga Harness Racing Inc., 96-CV-1587, began when Frank Studenroth obtained a divorce in the Dominican Republic. Studenroth and Melody Edwardsen Phillips were married in 1985, and lived together in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., until 1993. Studenroth left Phillips while they were vacationing in Maine in July 1993. The relationship deteriorated to the point where the parties communicated only through passing notes via their children, according to court records. On Oct. 5, 1994, Studenroth obtained a Dominican divorce by default when Phillips, who apparently knew nothing about the proceeding, failed to appear. Two days later, he married his secretary. Three days after that, Studenroth went to the personnel director for his employer, Saratoga Harness Racing Inc., to have Phillips removed from the health plan and to extend coverage to his new wife. The personnel director provided Studenroth with documents advising Phillips of her rights to maintain health coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA). Studenroth promised to deliver the documents to Phillips. However, Phillips claims she did not learn until January 1995 that her health insurance had lapsed. That was two months after undergoing extensive treatment for thyroid disease. Phillips contends she consented to the treatment under the belief that the bill would be covered by Studenroth’s insurance. Meanwhile, after learning of the Dominican divorce, Phillips challenged the validity of the decree. New York Supreme Court Justice William H. Keniry in March 1996 nullified the divorce on the grounds that Phillips had been denied an opportunity to be heard in the Dominican Republic and had not been provided reasonable notice. At issue before Judge Kahn was whether the notice requirements of COBRA were satisfied when the employer provided documents to Studenroth upon his promise to provide them to Phillips. Kahn held they were not. “While some married couples are able to dissolve their marriages amicably, it is well known that separations and divorces often turn once-loving spouses into bitter enemies,” Kahn wrote. “As such, it is unreasonable to depend on a health care plan beneficiary’s former spouse to deliver a COBRA notice to the beneficiary. The very nature of divorce itself forecloses this avenue as a reasonable attempt to comply with the notification requirements.” Kahn granted summary judgment against the employer on liability, but denied summary judgment to the plaintiff on damages and fines. Appearing were Mary Beth Hynes of Clifton Park, N.Y., for the plaintiff, and Randall J. Ezick of Featherstonhaugh, Conway, Wiley & Clyne in Albany for the defendant.

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