A Bell Atlantic Corp. employee who has AIDS has sued the company, charging that it has violated federal pension law and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to cash out her disability pension.
Lawyers for Tema S. Gerhardt, 42, of Hillendale, filed the five-count lawsuit Wednesday in Baltimore's U.S. District Court. She was joined in the suit by her husband, Charles R. Gerhardt, executive vice president of Local 2100 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents Bell Atlantic employees.
Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, said yesterday that the company had not seen the lawsuit and would have no comment.
Mrs. Gerhardt, who has worked at Bell Atlantic since 1979, said she was diagnosed as having the AIDS virus in 1987 but continued to work until her condition forced her to go on disability in June 1994.
The former Tema Luft became well-known in the Baltimore area in the late 1980s after she became one of the first women in the country to publicly report that she had contracted AIDS through heterosexual intercourse. She went on to become an activist in national and local organizations for people with AIDS.
Ms. Gerhardt said her husband, whom she married in 1992, is listed as a plaintiff because she wants him to be her beneficiary. He does not have the virus, she said.
The Gerhardts' lawsuit alleges that Bell Atlantic agreed during negotiations with the CWA in 1992 to let employees who retire in 1994 and 1995 take their disability and other pensions as a lump sum in lieu of monthly payments.
According to the lawsuit, Bell Atlantic later acted unilaterally tochange the policy to exclude the disability pensions from the cash-out provision. It asserts that the change violated the company's collective bargaining agreement with the CWA and illegally treated disabled people differently from other employees.
The lawsuit asks the court to order Bell Atlantic to make the lump sum payment to Mrs. Gephardt. It also asks for $300,000 in punitive damages under the disabilities act, fines for failing to provide requested documents and unspecified additional damages.
The Gerhardts estimated the cash-out value of the disability pension at $130,000.
Mrs. Gephardt said in an interview that the lawsuit was not intended to advance the CWA's interests as it approaches critical contract talks with Bell Atlantic this year.
"This is not a union agenda. This is my money," she said. She said she wants the lump sum so she will be able to pay for home nursing care if that becomes necessary.