Pension & Benefits News Employee who alleged harassment by HR employee failed to advance ERISA Sec. 510 claim
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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Employee who alleged harassment by HR employee failed to advance ERISA Sec. 510 claim

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

An employee who alleged that she was terminated after having twice been “assailed and harassed” by a human resources employee failed to advance her claim that her discharge constituted unlawful interference with her attempt to collect spousal death benefits under ERISA Sec. 510, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (CA-6) has ruled.

Bad HR meetings . According to an employee whose late husband worked for the same employer, she twice sought the input of HR personnel as she tried to understand what her complaint described as the employer's “complicated spousal death benefit options.” Both times, she said, she was “verbally assailed and harassed” and on one occasion “physically threatened.” The second meeting ended when HR “specifically directed her to grab her purse” and leave. The employee interpreted this as a constructive discharge and never returned to work.

The employee's suit, originally filed in state court as a wrongful discharge claim, was successfully removed to federal district court by the employer, based on the employee's representation that her wrongful discharge claims rested on a violation of ERISA Sec. 510. The district court granted the employer's motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), concluding the employee failed to plead facts that plausibly alleged that the employer engaged in prohibited conduct “with the specific intent to violate ERISA.”

Intent to violate ERISA. The Sixth Circuit upheld the victory for the employer. It explained that under ERISA Sec. 510, the employee must prove that an adverse action—in this case, the discharge—was taken “with the specific intent of violating ERISA.” At the pleadings stage, the court explained, a plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference” that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.

The appellate court rejected the employee's contention that an inference of improper motivation may be drawn solely based on temporal proximity—that is, because she was discharged during a meeting about spousal benefits, her discharge constituted improper interference. Accepting the employee's allegations as true, she offered no facts from which to infer why she was sent home. In addition, the court explained, she failed to claim that her discharge prevented her from receiving spousal death benefits to which she otherwise would have become entitled or that her right to spousal death benefits depended on her own employment.

Source: Spangler v. East Kentucky Power Cooperative, Inc. (CA-6).

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