Former Employee Fails to Prove Benefits Interference

August 30, 2006 ( - The US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio determined that a former employee of Marathon Ashland Petroleum failed to prove the company forced him to retire early to prevent him from receiving full pension benefits.

The court noted first that Patrick Zbuka was 13 years away from being eligible to receive full pension benefits when Marathon met with him and his union representative to fire him in 2004. This time gap alone made it seem unlikely Marathon had any attempt to interfere with Zbuka’s right to pension benefits.

According to the opinion, it was Zbuka’s union representative that offered the solution of retirement in lieu of firing Zbuka. Zbuka did not provide any evidence that Marathon had any intent other than to fire an employee with a history of disciplinary actions, the court said.

Zbuka argued that, by failing to inform him of his pension benefits if he retired versus being fired, Marathon interfered with his rights to benefits. The court rejected that argument, saying the supervisors whose intent was to fire Zbuka had no reason to explain any differences in pension benefits if he were to retire, nor did they likely know of any differences.

Finally, the former employee argued that the final two workplace incidents leading to his termination were not actually his fault – Marathon failed to monitor and/or train him properly. The court said that even if Zbuka proved the incidents were not his fault, he did not prove that the company believed the incidences were not his fault or that the numerous incidences documented in the prior three and a half years were not his fault.

Zbuka began work with Ashland Oil Company, which later merged with Marathon Oil Company, in 1979. During a period from 2001 to June 2004 he was disciplined for a number of workplace mistakes that caused business interruptions and environmental incidences.

Following a contamination incidence that caused the closure of gas stations and thousands of dollars in damages, Marathon decided to terminate Zbuka. During the termination meeting, Zbuka’s union representative asked if he could retire rather than be terminated. Zbuka took an unpaid leave of absence until the first of the following month, when he retired.

Zbuka filed a lawsuit claiming Marathon forced him to retire to interfere with his pension rights in violation of Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The court granted summary judgment for Marathon.

The case is Zbuka v. Marathon Ashland Petroleum,  Northern District Ohio, No. 3:04CV7754, 8/25/06.