ERISA-Eighth Circuit Rules That Plaintiff Failed To Make Out A Prima Facie Claim Of Retaliation Under ERISA Or FLSA

December 18, 2012

In Shrable v. Eaton Corporation, No. 12-1404 (8th Cir. 2012), the plaintiff, Donald Shrable ("Shrable"), had been terminated by his employer, Eaton Corporation ("Eaton"), in July 2009 after receiving three formal written warnings about his job performance and conduct. Shrable then filed this suit under ERISA and the FLSA, alleging that Eaton had retaliated against him after he raised certain complaints protected by those statutes. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Eaton, and Shrable appealed.

In analyzing the case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (the "Court") noted that section 510 of ERISA-the basis of the ERISA retaliation claim- makes it unlawful to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, discipline, or discriminate against a participant for exercising any right to which he is entitled under the provisions of an employee benefit plan. The Court said that, to make out a prima facie case of retaliation under section 510 (and avoid adverse summary judgment), Shrable must prove that he participated in a statutorily protected activity, he experienced an adverse employment action, and a causal connection existed between the two. Shrable claims he engaged in a statutorily protected activity, by complaining about the company's 401(k) plan in January of 2009. However, the Court found that Shrable did not participate in any such activity, since the record appears to show that he did not, in fact, make any such complaint. Further, Shrable fails to demonstrate a causal connection between his supposed comments in January, 2009, and his termination in July. The Court said that it doubts whether a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of retaliation when the termination of his employment occurs six months after the alleged protected activity. As such, the Court concluded that Shrable has failed to make out a prima facie case of retaliation under ERISA.

Next, the Court noted that the FLSA makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint under or related to the FLSA (see 29 U.S.C. ยง 215(a)(3)). It said that, to make out a prima facie case of retaliation under FLSA, Shrable must show the same three elements required for his ERISA claim. Here, Shrable contends that he was terminated for complaining, again in January, 2009, about the company's elimination of a half hour of paid lunch, which related to the FLSA because it would affect overtime. However, the Court said that bona fide meal periods are not work time, and thus the elimination of a half hour of paid lunch would have no effect on overtime or any FLSA requirements. Further, Shrable has failed show a causal connection between his complaint about the paid lunch in January, 2009, and his termination six months later. Thus, the Court concluded that Shrable did not make out a prima facie case of retaliation under the FLSA.

Based on the above, the Court affirmed the district court's summary judgment for Eaton.