Employee Complaints about Plan Violations Protected by ERISA

May 19, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that an employee's complaint to management about plan violations was an "inquiry or proceeding" that is protected from retaliation by Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

EBIA reports that the employee in this case complained to management about the company’s failure to deposit payroll deferrals into a company-sponsored IRA plan.   Within a week the employer deposited the deferrals, as well as matching contributions and earnings due on the contributions.

Around three months later, the employee was terminated, according to EBIA.   The employee filed a lawsuit claiming the termination was retaliation in violation of ERISA Section 510.   The company made a request for summary judgment, saying the complaint was not a protected activity under Section 510.   The employer also said there was no causal link between the complaint and the termination.

Under Section 510, it is unlawful to discharge someone for providing information or testifying in “any inquiry or proceeding related to” ERISA.   The court determined the employee’s complaint fell within the definition of “inquiry or proceeding.”

Additionally, the court said there was enough evidence to establish a causal link between the complaint and the termination.   The employee had been given positive appraisals and had not been warned of any misconduct, so the employer’s offered reasons for termination could be false, the court determined.   Also, it said, the three month delay in the termination could have been time for the employer to train the employee’s replacement.

Summary judgment for the employer was denied.

The case is Dunn v. Elco Enterprises, Inc., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26169 (E.D. Mich. 2006).