New York Man Fights IBM Firing over Chat Room Visit

September 23, 2009

A former IBM employee who was fired for visiting an adult chat room while at work has appealed a court decision against him.

James Pacenza, 60, of Montgomery, New York had claimed that post-traumatic stress stemming from combat in Vietnam had turned him into a sex-and-Internet addict who should have been treated rather than dismissed.

But IBM said Pacenza was discharged simply because “he visited an Internet chat room for a sexual experience during work after he had been previously warned.”

Federal Judge Paul Gardephe agreed that IBM Corp. policy was consistent and granted the company summary judgment in April. He said Pacenza had never told IBM about his stress disorder, so he couldn’t have expected the company to make any special accommodation for him.

He also said there was no evidence that IBM had used the chat-room incident as a pretext to fire him for other reasons including his age.

Pacenza’s lawyer, Michael Diederich, said Monday he had appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court did not consider all the varying and contradictory explanations that IBM had for terminating Pacenza, including that he had the right of an internal appeal that they flatly refused to him,” Diederich said.

Calls to Diana Bernard, a spokeswoman for Armonk-based IBM, were not immediately returned.

The case, filed in 2004, prompted discussions of how employers regulate Internet use that is not work-related and how Internet overuse is categorized medically. Internet addiction is not recognized as a separate disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and treatment is not generally covered by insurance. Some experts say it can be a symptom of other mental illness, such as depression.

In 2006, a Stanford University study found that up to 14 percent of computer users reported neglecting work, school, families, food and sleep to use the Internet.

Pacenza, a 19-year IBM veteran, was making $65,000 a year operating a machine at a plant in East Fishkill that makes computer chips. During some down time on May 28, 2003, he logged onto an adult chat room from a computer at his work station.

“I felt I needed the interactive engagement of chat talk to divert my attention from my thoughts of Vietnam and death,” he said in court papers. “I was tempting myself to perhaps become involved in some titillating conversation.”

He said the stress from Vietnam had caused him to become “a sex addict, and with the development of the Internet, an Internet addict.”

Another worker saw some chat entries on Pacenza’s station, including a vulgar reference to a sexual act.

He reported his discovery to his boss, and Pacenza was fired the next day.

Pacenza, who has a wife and two children, is still working in computers at another company but making less money, his lawyer said Monday.

Associated Press Writer Nicholas K. Geranios contributed to this report.

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