Qwest Absolved of ERISA Violation Allegations

April 18, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal judge has cleared a telecommunications company of allegations of wrongdoing in connection with a former employee's rights to disability and retirement benefits.

Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Parker of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico decided that Maria Lorencita Chavez had not demonstrated that Qwest fired her with the specific intent to interfere with her rights under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Among other issues, Parker rejected Chavez’s argument that Qwest did not accommodate her eye condition, which she alleged was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at work, and that if Qwest had accommodated her disability she would have been able to return to work. Chavez never asked for such an accommodation, Parker pointed out, so Qwest could not have been expected to provide one.

Not only that, but Parker also turned aside Chavez’s argument that Qwest violated Section 510 of ERISA because the company had a policy of requiring an employee to return to work after an employee’s request for short-term disability benefits has been denied, even though the employee’s treating physician does not recommend that the employee return to work.

According to court records, Chavez worked for Qwest from 1986 until November 2004. In mid-2004, Chavez received short-term disability benefits for her eye problem. After her benefits were terminated, Chavez returned to work temporarily but alleged she was again exposed to toxic chemicals in August 2004. The administrator for Qwest’s disability benefit plan denied Chavez’s application for additional disability benefits, the court said.

Chavez’s supervisor told her in October 2004 that her continued absence from work was regarded as unexcused time and that if she failed to return to work by November 1, 2004, her employment would be terminated. According to the court, Chavez did not return to work by November 1, 2004, and instead told Qwest her treating physician had not released her to go back to work.

Qwest fired Chavez on November 12, 2004 for failure to report to work.

In granting Qwest’s motion to dismiss the case, Parker found that Chavez could not request lost benefits as a remedy for a Section 510 violation. According to the court, ERISA Section 510 is enforced through private actions authorized by ERISA Section 502(a)(3), which limits remedies to equitable relief.

The case is Chavez v. Qwest Inc., D.N.M., No. 05-396 JP/RLP, 4/11/07.