Participant Time-Barred from Fiduciary Claim Against Coca-Cola

October 20, 2006 ( - The US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled that a former Coca-Cola Co. employee waited too long to pursue his claim that the company breached its fiduciary duties by not giving him a more beneficial retirement package.

According to the opinion, to bring a claim past the three year limitation period set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) the plaintiff must prove equitable tolling, equitable estoppel, or fraud or concealment by Coca-Cola. The court found that the former employee did not prove that he was prevented from suing by inequitable circumstances (equitable tolling) or that Coca-Cola told the employee he had a longer limitation period or that they would give him the better benefits if he did not sue (equitable estoppel).

In granting Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the court rejected the former employee’s claim that the limitation period should have been deferred during the time he was exhausting all administrative remedies for negotiating a better retirement package. The former employee was negotiating with his new employer to include his time with Coca-Cola in his years of service for calculation of retirement benefits, and his new employer was a separate company from Coca-Cola, so he was not exhausting his administrative remedies under the Coca-Cola plan.

Carl Bleier was working on a special project for Coca-Cola when he was terminated in 1999 due to downsizing, at which point he was offered a severance package that guaranteed him half of his retirement benefit. When he learned six days after accepting the package and signing a release of all claims against Coca-Cola that the company was providing a better separation package to employees with age and service criteria that Bleier met, he asked for the better package. His request was denied.

In May 2001 Bleier took a job with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) and claimed a representative there told him that his years of service at Coca-Cola would be included in the calculation of retirement benefits with CCE. However, when he left CCE after four years, his petition for benefits based on years of service with both companies was denied because Coca-Cola was a separate entity from CCE.

The denial prompted Bleier to file a lawsuit in March 2006 against Coca-Cola for breach of fiduciary duty in not providing him with the better separation benefits.

According to the opinion, Bleier “admits that for more than three years prior to bringing this lawsuit, he had actual knowledge that the defendant had decided not to allow him to rescind his acceptance” of the first severance package; therefore, his claim of fiduciary breach fails to meet even the longer six year statute of limitations.

The case is Bleier v. Coca-Cola Co., N.D. Ga., No. 1:06-CV-697-TWT, October 16, 2006.