Termination for Excessive Cell Phone Use Not an ERISA Violation

May 11, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Termination for excessive cell phone use did not amount to an employer's illegal interference with an employee's potential severance benefits.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8 th Circuit, in affirming a lower court’s opinion, found the employee was fired not out of personal animosity, but due to a violation of company policy.   Thus, the employee was not entitled to the nearly $200,000 in severance pay otherwise available had the employee been terminated a month later.  

With the ruling, the appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that his employer terminated him for the purpose of interfering with the potential to obtain severance benefits; a violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).   Agreeing with the initial decision, the 8 th Circuit found the ex-employee failed to prove that he was terminated for the purpose of interfering with his ability to attain severance benefits because the employee did not show the company’s motivation behind the termination was pretextual.  

“ERISA does not prohibit employers from firing employees they don’t like, so long as their purpose is not to interfere with the employees’ benefits,”Judge C. Arlen Beam wrote in the court’s opinion.

Case History

Randall Koons had worked for Aventis and its predecessor companies since 1985.   In October 1999, Koons learned that his Kansas City office was going to be moved to New Jersey. Because Koons did not want to relocate to New Jersey, he and his supervisor established an end date for his employment.   At the time, Koons was made aware ofthe severance benefits that were available.

In the months prior to Koons’ agreed upon termination date, Aventis allowed him to work from home and the office and to retain the use of a company cell-phone.   One month in particular, August 2000, Koons’ charged 3,321 minutes to his cell phone despite the fact he was doing little Aventis work.   Additionally, Koons’ had used a list of confidential Aventis associate addresses to distribute information about the real estate business he was establishing.  

Upon discovering this activity, Aventis fired Koons in October 2000, one month prior to his scheduled termination date.   Koons requested severance pay but Aventis determined he was not entitled to benefits because he was fired for violating company policy.

The case is Koons v. Aventis Pharmaceuticals Inc. , 8th Circuit, Number 03-2165.