Are You the Subject of ERISA Discrimination?

ERISA Discrimination

ERISA stands for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

It is a federal law that governs private employers that have 25 or more employees and provide pension, retirement, or other plans.

ERISA section 510 protects participants in and beneficiaries of employee benefit plans governed by ERISA.

ERISA section 510 also applies to people who have already received benefits.

The participants in plans are usually employees or former employees of their employer.

What Is ERISA Discrimination?

Most of the time, ERISA discrimination or retaliation claims arise when an employer terminates an employee.

The employee claims their termination was to prevent them from making a claim under a benefit plan or becoming eligible for benefits under section 510.

If you believe you are the subject of ERISA discrimination, you should contact an ERISA attorney as soon as possible.

Applicable Employee Benefit Plans

There are two types of employee benefit plans that are subject to ERISA discrimination or retaliation claims:

  1. Employee welfare benefit plans, and
  2. Employee pension benefit plans.

An employer who provides welfare benefits usually provides employee welfare benefit plans. Welfare benefits include medical, disability, and death benefits.

Employee pension benefit plans are also called retirement or defined contribution plans. They are offered by an employer who provides retirement income to employees. In these types of plans, you and/or your employer contribute money to your account. A common example is a 401(k) plan.

Proving an ERISA Discrimination Claim

To prove an ERISA discrimination or retaliation claim, the plaintiff needs to prove that his or her employer attempted to interfere with their rights under ERISA.

Specifically, you can prove an ERISA discrimination claim by showing either:

  • Direct evidence of an attempt to interfere with your rights, or
  • Circumstantial evidence of an attempt to interfere with your rights.

Proving your ERISA discrimination claim with circumstantial evidence is more common than using direct evidence because employers are usually careful about what they do and say in relation to an employee’s termination.

Elements of an ERISA Discrimination Claim

The elements of an ERISA discrimination claim depend on whether you plan to present direct or circumstantial evidence to support your case.

An ERISA lawyer can help you decide which analysis applies to your case.

Direct Evidence

To prove your insurance claim with direct evidence, you must follow what is called the Price Waterhouse analysis.

The Price Waterhouse analysis is used when the plaintiff can present direct evidence of their employer’s conduct or statements that reflect a discriminatory attitude that likely contributed to the employer’s decision to terminate the employee.

In these types of cases, the direct evidence shifts the burden of proof to the defendant-employer. This means that the employer must prove that it would have made the decision to terminate the employee even without the alleged discrimination.

Circumstantial Evidence

To prove your claim through circumstantial evidence, you must follow the McDonnell Douglas analysis.

A plaintiff must prove three things to have a successful claim under the McDonnell Douglas analysis. He or she must present evidence demonstrating that:

  1. They engaged in an activity protected by ERISA;
  2. They suffered an adverse employment action; and
  3. There is a causal connection between the protected activity and the employer’s adverse action.

Once the plaintiff presents evidence of these three elements, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.

Most of the time, proving that a causal connection exists is the key issue. An ERISA lawyer can help you determine whether your case might satisfy this element.

Protected activity

The first element of a section 501 claim is that the employee engaged in a protected activity. Under the McDonnell Douglas analysis, ERISA-protected activities include:

  • An employee’s exercise of his or her rights under an ERISA-governed plan, and
  • An employee taking part in any ERISA-related inquiries or proceedings.

An employer cannot terminate an employee for past use of company healthcare benefits.

Additionally, an employer cannot terminate an employee to avoid paying the employee additional benefits they would be entitled to if they were to continue working for the employer.

In the Fourth Circuit, an ERISA-related inquiry or proceeding usually must be more than complaints to a supervisor. The inquiry or proceeding must involve a complaint that is more formal, such as initiating legal proceedings.

Adverse employment action

To prove a successful ERISA discrimination claim, the employee must have suffered an adverse employment action. Adverse employment actions which an employer may take include:

  • Discharge,
  • Fine,
  • Suspension,
  • Termination,
  • Discipline, and
  • Discrimination.

If you suffered any of these adverse employment actions, an ERISA lawyer can help you determine if you might be eligible for an ERISA discrimination or retaliation claim.

Causal connection

Finally, an employee needs to show that there is a connection between the protected activity the employee engaged in and the adverse employment action they suffered.

In other words, the employee must show that they suffered an adverse employment action as a result of engaging in an ERISA-protected activity.

Some factors courts take into account when deciding whether a causal connection exists include:

  • The time between the ERISA-protected activity and the adverse employment action;
  • Whether the employer’s justification for termination was pretextual; and 
  • Whether the justification is believable.

A common example of a causal connection arises when an employee is sick or injured and is receiving health care under their employer’s plan. If the employer terminates the employee because the employer is concerned that the employee’s health condition might cost them more money, a causal connection exists.

If you believe you suffered an adverse employment action as the result of engaging in an ERISA-protected activity, you should talk to an ERISA lawyer as soon as possible.

How Can an ERISA Lawyer Help You?

If you believe you are the subject of ERISA discrimination or retaliation, an ERISA lawyer can help you establish your claim, file your case, and fight for the remedies you deserve.

John Peace at the Peace Law Firm has handled ERISA cases in South Carolina for over 15 years. Unlike some ERISA attorneys, John represents only real people, not employers. He believes in helping individuals who have been mistreated by large companies.

John can help you get remedies for suffering ERISA discrimination such as:

  • The reinstatement of your benefits, and
  • Attorney fees and costs.

Contact John today to schedule your free consultation.

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