Employee Fired for Plan Inquiry Awarded Damages

November 17, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US District Court for the District of Minnesota has awarded damages and attorney's fees to a former Midwest Telephone Sales & Service, Inc. employee who claimed she was fired for questioning her employer about company match contributions for her SIMPLE IRA plan account.

In its opinion , the court determined Roseanne Cauley Simons provided sufficient evidence that her firing was retaliatory in violation of Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The court pointed out that Simons’ supervisor, Frank Bagot Sr., admitted he had no intention of firing Simons when he went to work on the day he received a note from her pointing out that no employer contributions had ever been made to her account and asking when the contributions would be made.

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that Simons’ informal inquiry was not a protected right under ERISA, citing a previous court ruling that ERISA provides employees the right to inform plan administrators of suspected violations of the statute. Simons had been told by a financial planner that the company was required by law to make matching contributions to her account. Therefore, her letter pointed out a suspected ERISA violation, according to the opinion.

Midwest and Bagot told the court the company already had plans to lay off Simons in July 2004 due to company finances and her poor work performance, but disparaging remarks she made to Bagot in a conversation about her note advanced her termination to that particular day in May 2004. The court ruled there was no evidence this was true, as there was never a discussion with Simons concerning her performance while she worked at the company and there was no record of poor performance by Simons in her employee file.

Simons’ damage award included $1,456.55 for unpaid employer contributions and $16,840.52 for lost wages and benefits.

A previous ruling on the case (See Different Retaliation Claims Warrant Different Court Conclusions ) said Bagot asked Simons why she left a letter instead of confronting him directly about the contributions and she replied that she wanted everything to be in writing because she did not trust him. In that decision, the court decided the evidence created “a genuine issue for trial” and denied a motion for summary judgment by Simons. In addition, the court said Bagot, and not the company, could be held liable for the alleged retaliation since he was the one who fired Simons.