Firing After Threat No Benefits Conspiracy

November 1, 2002 ( - An appeals court has upheld an earlier decision that an accelerated termination following employee threats was no conspiracy to deny benefits, according to Washington-based legal publisher BNA.

In Romero v SmithKline Beecham, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s opinion, in part stating SmithKline Beecham did not deprive a former employee of ERISA rights after stating she would like to see “someday somebody puts a bullet in that man” referring to the Human Resources director.

However, the appeals court did find the lower court erred in ruling that the employee was not entitled to penalties under ERISA for the failure of the plan administrator to provide her with requested plan documents, findingnothing in ERISA that says requests for plan documents must be made to the current plan administrator.

The case stems from a 1995 reduction in workforce at SmithKline, with the company offering enhanced retirement benefits for voluntary early retirement.   Louise Romero met with the Human Resources director and the two agreed orally that Romero’s last day on the job would be December 31, 1997.

Shot Going?  

Later, Romero found her actual termination date would be October 3, 1997.   This change angered Romero, who made several comments to other employees about the human resources director, including the aforementioned desire to see him shot.

The company upon learning of these threats accelerated Romero’s termination date to April 29, 1997.   SmithKline’s policy on early retirement due to the reduction stated an employee must be employed until at least the fourth quarter of 1997 to recieve early retirement benefits.   Romero was ruled to be ineligible, leading to her suit claiming a violation of ERISA Section 510, interfering with her ability to receive benefits. Additionally, she claimed violation of Section 502 (c) (1) for the plan administrator’s failure to send requested plan documents.

Intent to Interfere

In upholding the earlier ruling of the District Court, Circuit Judge Samuel Alito, Jr said, “here, Romero alleges a ‘conspiracy’ to deny her benefits, but she does not identify any facts in the record that would establish either prohibited conduct or the requisite ‘specific intent’ to interfere with benefits”.

However, the appeals courts reversed the earlier decision of the Section 502 (c) (1) violation by the District court.  The appeals court said that even though Romero failed to send the request to the current plan administrator, ERISA does not state that request for plan documents should be made to the current plan administrator saying, “”[T]here may be other circumstances in which it is not easy for a participant or beneficiary to obtain the name of the administrator. We have no doubt that ERISA [S]ection 502(c)(1) was not meant to impose upon a plan participant or beneficiary seeking information the inflexible requirement of addressing the request to the current plan administrator”.

The appeals court went on to clarify that there still must be receipt of the request by the current administrator.   The Section 502 ( c ) (1) stipulation that requested plan documents be mailed out 30 days after receipt apply a fter the request is actually received by the administrator.