Informal employee questions regarding benefits are “inquiries” protected by ERISA Sec. 510

A former employee’s repeated complaints that money withheld from his paycheck was not deposited into his retirement account were “inquiries” protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of ERISA §510, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (CA-7) has held. As such, it reversed the district court’s award of summary judgment to the employer, giving the employee the opportunity to prove his termination was in retaliation for his questions.

Termination of employment

After asking numerous questions of various employer accountants and executives, the employee received checks for about $2,600 to make up for the missed deposits. Some months later he was terminated.

District court

The employee filed suit under ERISA §510, claiming that the complaints regarding his retirement plan deposits led to his termination. ERISA §510 prohibits retaliation “against any person because he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding relating to” ERISA.

The employer conceded the employee had “given information,” but argued that his repeated questions were informal and not part of “any inquiry or proceeding.” The district court granted summary judgment to the employer, concluding that by its terms ERISA §510 does not cover the employee’s complaints.

Definition of “inquiry”

The appellate court reversed and remanded. While ERISA §510 is “a mess of unpunctuated conjunctions and prepositions,” its ambiguities must be resolved in favor of protecting employees, the court explained. It thus rejected the employer’s assertion that the word “inquiry” as used in the statute can only refer to a formal proceeding. The statute can be construed so that one could “give information” in either a formal or informal setting. In an informal setting, the word “inquiry” could refer to “the act of asking or questioning” by the employee. It may be an awkward construction, but, the court said, some awkwardness is preferable to treating ERISA §510 as limited to formal proceedings or employer-initiated inquiries.

Source: George v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, Inc. (CA-7).

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For more information on this and related topics, consult the CCH Pension Plan Guide, CCH Employee Benefits Management, and Spencer’s Benefits Reports.

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