COBRA Rights Are Not Unrestricted

William Gilson was a trooper for the Pennsylvania State Patrol. The Patrol terminated Gilson in 2010, finding that, while on-duty, he had “inappropriate physical contact with a female crisis services worker.” The Patrol also concluded that Gilson had “obviously lied to the investigator regarding his misconduct, and that Gilson had been the subject of a previous IAD investigation which was sustained and in which he was found to be less than truthful.” An arbitrator later upheld Gilson’s termination.

Gilson sued the Patrol in federal court, listing 13 separate causes of action. One of Gilson’s claims was that his rights under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) and the Public Health Services Act (PHSA) had been violated when he was not offered 18 months of continuing health insurance coverage after his termination.

The Court dismissed all of Gilson’s claims, including the PHSA/COBRA Claim. The Court noted that “the PHSA provides that state-operated group health plans must offer 18 months of continuing coverage to qualified beneficiaries who otherwise would lose coverage as a result of a ‘qualifying event.’ Under the PHSA, the term ‘qualifying event’ includes ‘termination (other than by reason of the employee’s gross misconduct).’ Thus, a termination based on the employee’s gross misconduct is not a qualifying event that triggers continuing health care coverage.

“Neither the PHSA, nor the comparable statute applicable to private employers (COBRA) defines the term ‘gross misconduct.’ Under Pennsylvania law, discharge for willful misconduct connected with work disqualifies an employee from unemployment compensation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has defined ‘willful misconduct’ to mean ‘wanton or willful disregard of the employer’s interest, a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules, a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect of an employee, or negligence indicating an intentional disregard of the employer’s interest or of the employee’s duties and obligations to the employer.’

“Here, Gilson’s discharge was premised on his inappropriate touching of the crisis services worker and his repeated denials of any inappropriate physical contact. An arbitrator found that Gilson had engaged in a serious act of deception by repeatedly denying the inappropriate contact during the course of the IAD investigation. The Court agrees that, as a matter of law, these circumstances demonstrate a wanton or willful disregard of the employer’s interest, a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules, a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect of an employee, and/or negligence indicating an intentional disregard of the employer’s interest or of the employee’s duties and obligations to the employer sufficient to establish willful misconduct.”

Gilson v. Pennsylvania State Police, 2016 WL 1237351 (W.D. Pa. 2016).