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IBM worker says he was fired for chat room addiction

A Vietnam veteran who worked at an IBM research facility in East Fishkill, N.Y., claims he was wrongfully terminated by the computer maker for having an addiction to Internet chat rooms, according to a lawsuit filed by the vet.

In his legal action against IBM, James Pacenza admits that he spent time in chat rooms during work hours, but claims his behaviour is the result of an addiction and that IBM should have offered him counselling instead of firing him. Employees "with much more severe psychological problems, in the form of drug or alcohol problems ... are allowed treatment programs" at IBM, Pacenza argues in his lawsuit.

IBM is expected to file a motion to dismiss the case next month, according to court records. Pacenza worked in the raw materials preparation and photolithography departments at IBM's East Fishkill plant until May 2003, when he was fired. He originally sued IBM in 2004 in the U.S. District Court for New York. Pacenza is seeking more than $5 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

In his suit, Pacenza says his use of Internet chat rooms is a form of "self medication" he uses to treat post traumatic stress disorder suffered as a result of combat experience in Vietnam. On the day before he was fired, Pacenza says he wrote a letter to a fallen Vietnam comrade lamenting his death. Afterward, he ventured into an Internet chat room "as a brief diversion from work," according to court papers.

Pacenza says he was fired the next day after a supervisor learned of the activity.

IBM says Pacenza was not fired specifically for using a chat room, but because "he logged on a website that contained sexual content on an IBM-owned computer during the workday." IBM says the instant messages that Pacenza sent and received on the site's chat room included references to a sex act. IBM also contends that it has treatment programs for employees "with illnesses," but had no knowledge of Pacenza having a specific condition. The company says Pacenza was "dismissed for legitimate business reasons."

In a study released last month, the Stanford University School of Medicine found that one in eight Americans exhibited signs of possible Internet addiction. "We need to consider the fact that [the Internet] creates real problems for a subset of people," said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, the study's lead author, in a statement.

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