Dentist's Termination of Talkative Hygenist Deprived Her of Retirement Benefits In Violation of ERISA § 510

A talkative dental hygienist established that her termination was motivated by her employer's desire to avoid funding her retirement plan.  Her employer, a dentist, claimed that he fired the hygienist because he'd received numerous client complaints about her excessive talking.  The court said that even if the dentist had received these complaints, the evidence established that another reason for her termination was the dentist's desire to avoid funding her retirement fund to make up for losses to the fund in 2008.  Since ERISA § 510, requires an employee to show that a motivating factor in her termination was to avoid paying employee benefits, and not that it was the sole reason, the dental hygienist succeeded on her claims that her termination violated § 510.  See Virga v. Robert T. Harrison D.D.S., P.C., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45422 (Apr. 27, 2011).

Termination After Unsolicited Complaints About Benefit Plan Not Retaliation

Shortly after an employee complained about problems with an employer's benefit plan, she was terminated.  She sued claiming retaliation under ERISA Section 510.  The case was quickly dismissed because the court determined that unsolicited generalized complaints are not protected under ERISA's anti-retaliation statute, Section 510.  Instead, the information provided must have been given after someone approached the employee and she was asked to provide information. For anyone interested in reading this case, it is Edwards v. A.H. Cornell & Son, 610 F.3d 217 (3rd Cir. 2010).

Standard for Interference Claim Under Section ERISA 510

In order to show that a person interfered with an individual's right to receive an employee benefit, the individual must show that the person had a "specific intent" to interfere with the receipt of those benefits.  Fitzgerald v. Action, Inc., 521 F.3d 867, 871 (8th Cir. 2008).  This showing may be made with direct or circumstantial evidence.

In the absence of direct evidence, a court will apply the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis applied to Title VII and ADEA cases.




Section 510 of ERISA - Generally

Section 510 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1140, makes it unlawful for any person to discriminate against an plan participant or beneficiary, or in some cases, an employer for exercising rights provided by an employee benefit plan, certain sections of ERISA. or the Welfare and Pension Plans Disclosure Act.

The text states, in relevant part,

"It shall be unlawful for any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, discipline, or discriminate against a participant or beneficiary for exercising any right to which he is entitled under the provisions of an employee benefit plan, this subchapter, section
    1201 of this title, or the Welfare and Pension Plans Disclosure Act  [29 U.S.C. 301 et seq.], or for the purpose of interfering with the  attainment of any right to which such participant may become entitled under the plan, this subchapter, or the Welfare and Pension   Plans Disclosure Act. It shall be unlawful for any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, or discriminate against any person because he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding relating to this chapter or the    Welfare and Pension Plans Disclosure Act. In the case of a multiemployer plan, it shall be unlawful for the plan sponsor or any other person to discriminate against any contributing employer for exercising rights under this chapter or for giving information or testifying in any inquiry or proceeding relating to this chapter  before Congress."