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Worker fired over visit to adult chat room sues IBM

The man says he is an Internet addict who deserves treatment rather than dismissal.

February 19, 2007|From the Associated Press

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — A man who was fired by IBM Corp. for visiting an adult chat room at work is suing the company for $5 million, claiming that he is an Internet addict who deserves treatment and sympathy rather than dismissal.

James Pacenza, 58, of Montgomery, N.Y., said he visited chat rooms to treat traumatic stress incurred in 1969 when he saw his best friend killed during an Army patrol in Vietnam.

In papers filed in federal court in White Plains, Pacenza said the stress caused him to become "a sex addict, and with the development of the Internet, an Internet addict." He claimed protection under the American With Disabilities Act.

His lawyer, Michael Diederich, said Pacenza never visited pornographic websites at work, violated no written IBM rule and did not surf the Internet any more or any differently than other employees. Diederich also said age discrimination contributed to IBM's actions. Pacenza, 55 at the time he was fired, had been with the company for 19 years and said he could have retired in a year.

Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM has asked Judge Stephen Robinson for a summary judgment, saying its policy against surfing sexual websites is clear. It also claimed that Pacenza was told he could lose his job after an incident four months earlier. Pacenza denied that he received such a warning.

IBM said sexual behavior disorders were specifically excluded from the American With Disabilities Act and denied that there had been age discrimination.

Court papers arguing the motion for summary judgment will be exchanged next month.

If it goes to trial, the case could affect how employers regulate Internet use that is not work-related, or how Internet overuse is categorized medically. Stanford University issued a nationwide study last year that found that up to 14% of computer users reported neglecting work, school, families, food and sleep to use the Internet.

The study's director, Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, said then that he was most concerned about the number of people who hid their nonessential Internet use or used the Internet to escape a negative mood, much in the same way that alcoholics might.

Until he was fired, Pacenza was making $65,000 a year operating a machine at a plant in East Fishkill, N.Y., that makes computer chips.

Several times during the day, machine operators are idle for five to 10 minutes as the tool measures the thickness of silicon wafers.

It was during such downtime on May 28, 2003, that Pacenza logged onto an adult chat room from a computer at his workstation.

Diederich said Pacenza had returned that day from visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Pacenza, who has a wife and two children, said using the Internet at work was encouraged by IBM and served as "a form of self-medication" for post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said he tried to stay away from chat rooms at work, but that day, "I felt I needed the interactive engagement of chat talk to divert my attention from my thoughts of Vietnam and death."

"I was tempting myself to perhaps become involved in some titillating conversation," he said in court papers.

Pacenza said he was called away before he got involved in any online conversation. But he apparently did not log off, and when another worker went to Pacenza's station, he saw some chat entries, including a vulgar reference to a sexual act.

The worker reported his discovery to his boss, who fired Pacenza the next day.

Pacenza said he would have understood if IBM had disciplined him for taking an unauthorized break, but firing him was too extreme.

Fred McNeese, a spokesman for IBM, would not comment on the case.

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