'Willful Misconduct' Dismissal Is Not an ERISA Violation

June 4, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Cursing at co-workers, posting erotic pictures on a work computer and other abusive and bizarre behaviors are adequate reasons for firing an employee for "willful misconduct," and is not a ploy to skirt a severance benefit payout.

>The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found no evidence that Sears, Roebuck & Co interfered with a former employee’s severance benefits when the company terminated him ahead of a planned reduction in force.   Rather, the court found many holes in the plaintiff’s account and no reason for the company to deny any potential severance payout in ruling in favor of Sears.

The plaintiff, Steven Anglin, had contended Sears’ action were in violation of Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), when the Chicago-based retailer dismissed him for “willful misconduct.”   Anglin argued the “willful misconduct” termination was done by Sears as a means of getting around paying Anglin severance benefits in accordance with a reduction in force plan the company was conducting.

>To defend its actions, Sears cited five reasons for its decision to fire Anglin

  • on several occasions, he cursed at co-workers;
  • several disparaging comments about the company’s new computer system that he made;
  • the exhibition of abusive behavior during a project management class;
  • posting erotic pictures on his computer;
  • using the women’s restroom on a weekend while he was working.

>Upon hearing the justification behind Sears’ dismissal, the court found t he termination was not pretextual because the company “clearly had credible grounds” for relying, and acting, on the accounts of co-workers who made complaints about Anglin’s behavior. “There is also no evidence that management took a report about a minor incident and then twisted into something more sinister by exaggerating the facts,” Judge John Nordberg said in the opinion.

>Additionally, the court found no evidence that Anglinwould have been selected for the reduction in force program. “[P] laintiff relies merely on the unproven and self-serving speculation that, despite the fact that there was no evidence he had been scheduled to be a part of the [reduction in force], that the company conceivably could have changed its mind later after he was fired. But there is no evidence to support this theory,” the court said.

>Even if Anglin had been selected for the reduction in force, the court found no reason why Sears would have denied Anglin a severance package.   Examining the evidence, the court found had Anglin been selected, his severance would have amounted to $29,000, an amount the court labeled as ” inconsequential to a company the size of Sears.”

>Finally, in a curtly worded section of the opinion, the court found the Anglin’s counter to Sears’ account of the dismissal unbelievable, containing “too many twists and turns.”   “Why waste the time of positioning him in the [reduction in force] and then suddenly change [their] mind and try to accomplish the opposite?” the court asks.   Rather, the court finds the plaintiff’s theory unconvincing because, “he is not primarily concerned about the loss of severance benefits but is really more upset about the fact that he lost his job.”

The case is Anglinv. Sears, Roebuck & Co. , Northern District of Illinois, Number 93 C 3438.