Employee Benefits/ERISA

A federal Court of Appeals panel in Washington, D.C. today released a decision that, if upheld, would strike down one of the main pillars of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) and in the minds of many observers lead to unpredictable consequences. In a 2-1 decision in Halbig v. Burwell, the three-judge federal appeals panel

Generally speaking, employment-related retaliation laws prohibit employers from taking adverse actions against employees who engage in protected conduct, like complaining about discrimination or harassment, or for participating in a governmental investigation.

There is no doubt anti-retaliation laws serve a good purpose, but did you know there are at least 40 different federal anti-retaliation laws? This

Editor’s Note:  This blog first appeared last Thursday on our sister blog – Employee Benefits Law Report.

My assistant informed me that my patience is shot and I need to do something about that, so I am channeling my energy into one issue. Since health care reform was enacted, I have been hearing about how we should anticipate a flood of ERISA Section 510 (29 U.S.C. Section 1140) discrimination cases from people who are not participants under the plan terms, but want to be participants. I don’t get it.

ERISA Section 510 provides, “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to…discriminate against a participant or beneficiary…for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of any right to which such participant may become entitled under the provisions of an employee benefit plan.” ERISA Section 3(7) defines “participant” as “any employee or former employee of an employer, or any member or former member of an employee organization, who is or may become eligible to receive a benefit of any type from an employee benefit plan.”

In Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, the United States Supreme Court first considered Section 3(7) (29 U.S.C. Section 1002(7)) in the context of standing. It found this term to include “employees in, or reasonably expected to be in, currently covered employment,” or former employees who “have . . . a reasonable expectation of returning to covered employment” or who have “a colorable claim” to vested benefits.  The Court held that in order to establish that he or she may become eligible for benefits under ERISA Section 502, a claimant must have a colorable claim that (1) he or she will prevail in a suit for benefits, or that (2) eligibility requirements will be fulfilled in the future. The Court applied the same standard to Section 104(b)(4), the provision that requires providing plan documents that indicate whether or not an individual is eligible to participate to a person who claims to be eligible.

As Justice Scalia explained in an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, this definition ignores the fact that some of these supposed participants and beneficiaries are not actually participants and beneficiaries. Consider competing claimants to a 401(k) plan death benefit:  a same-sex spouse not designated as a beneficiary, and a parent designated as beneficiary. One of these will ultimately be found to be a beneficiary, and the other will not. But both will be treated as beneficiaries for purposes of making their case.

In Fleming v. Ayers & Assoc., the Sixth Circuit held that where an employer hired a part-time employee with the [employer’s] intent that she would become full-time when a position opened up, the employee was a participant under ERISA Section 3(7) and for purposes of Section 510. The Court did not further explain this conclusion, or discuss Firestone or Justice Scalia’s caution. A number of courts have distinguished Fleming, explaining that ERISA Section 510 does not require employers to make a part-time employee who is ineligible for benefits a full-time employee and thereby eligible for benefits. See, e.g., Geist v. Gill/Kardash P’ship, LLC, 671 F. Supp. 2d 729  (D. MD 2009) (plaintiff was not a full-time employee and was not eligible for benefits under the plan terms; plaintiff rejected a forty hour per week full-time schedule on more than one occasion and seems to have understood that this decision disqualified her for benefits); Pine v. Crow, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8629 (S.D. IN 2001) (ERISA does not require an employer to make an employee full-time); Shawley v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 784 F. Supp. 1200, 1203 (W.D. Pa. 1992) (concluding ERISA does not expressly prohibit a refusal to hire based on the employer’s potential benefit liability), aff’d, 989 F.2d 652 (3rd Cir. 1993).

Now let’s consider the ERISA claims in Sanders v. Amerimed, Inc., a recent decision in the Southern District of Ohio. Sanders was a part-time employee and not a participant in the health care plan, because the plan’s eligibility provisions provided that only full-time employees were eligible to become participants. Sanders wanted to be a full-time employee, and he wanted to be a participant, and quit. He then argued that the defendant violated ERISA Section 510 by not hiring him into a full-time position. The Court held that under Firestone and Fleming, Sanders had a colorable claim to benefits and standing to pursue his claims. The Fleming decision seems to be overreaching; it does not explain the significance of “intent” in the context of case law. But even if we assume the conclusion was valid, it does not appear to provide authority for treating Sanders as anything other than a participant want-to-be. Sanders was well aware he was not a plan participant: that is why he quit. So I do not understand how he even had a colorable claim to benefits, but for the sake of argument, let us move on to the Section 510 claim itself.

The definition of “participant” in Section 3(7) is just the beginning; ERISA goes on to develop this concept in Section 202 (29 U.S.C. Section 1052) and other provisions. The steps require asking whether under the plan terms, as limited by law:

  1. Is the employee a member of a classification that is eligible to participate?
  2. Has the employee satisfied any age requirement?
  3. Has the employee satisfied any service requirement?
  4. Has the employee reached an entry date?


Continue Reading ERISA Section 510: wanting to be a participant, versus being a participant

When you are before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals asking it to vacate an arbitrator’s award, and the court’s opinion begins with “[t]he arbitrator’s decision would doubtless be reversed if it were a decision under the precedent of this court,” you probably think you have won the case. You would be wrong. Here is what happened in Schafer v. Multiband Corporation and what it means for arbitration agreements in the Sixth Circuit.
Continue Reading One More Example Of Why Employers Should Be Careful In Implementing Arbitration Agreements

In a surprising but generally welcome move, the Obama administration has moved to delay the enforcement of the employer mandate to provide health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”), which otherwise was scheduled to go into effect in 2014. This delay in enforcement formally was announced in a statement released July 2, 2013 by Mark J. Mazur, Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy at the Department of the Treasury.
Continue Reading Health Care Reform Surprise: Obama Administration Delays Enforcement of Employer Mandate For One Year