ERISA-Fifth Circuit Holds That Plaintiff’s Claim Of A Violation Of The Anti-Retaliation Rule Under ERISA Section 510 Survives Summary Judgment

The case of Parker v. Cooper Tire and Rubber Company, No. 12-60503 (5th Cir. 2013) (Unpublished Opinion), arose out of the termination of the plaintiff, Jimmy Parker (“Parker”), from his employment with the defendant, Cooper Tire and Rubber Company (“Cooper”).

Parker had been taking absences from work due to severe disability. It appears that Parker complied with Cooper’s notification of absence policy on all but three occasions. Nevertheless, Cooper fired Parker for failing to report those absences. This suit ensued. Parker claimed, among other things, that Cooper discharged him to prevent him from collecting disability and medical benefits in violation of the anti-retaliation rule in section 510 of ERISA.

In analyzing the case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that there were two disability benefit plans at issue: a short-term disability plan, and a long-term disability plan. As to the latter, the Court ruled that Parker had failed to apply for long-term ERISA benefits, even though he was enrolled in the long-term benefit plan, and this is fatal to his retaliation claim as to that plan. As to the short-term disability plan, the Court ruled that this plan was not covered by ERISA, since it falls in the exception for payroll practices. Thus Parker’s claim fails as it applies to the disability plans.

As to the medical benefits, the Court concluded that Parker has met his burden of showing that the termination was a pretext for retaliation. It said that the close timing between Cooper’s discovery that Parker had a severe disability requiring serious medical treatment (a liver transplant) and his subsequent termination (one day only between the events) factors into our analysis. Further, Cooper’s stated reason for firing Parker was his failure to follow company procedures to report absences from work. However, Cooper repeatedly changed its determination as to which dates Parker actually failed to report his absences. This repeated inconsistency, in addition to efforts by Parker’s family to report absences on his behalf, are other factors lending support to Parker’s argument that Cooper’s justification for his termination is pretextual. These factors are sufficient evidence to create a material issue of fact regarding whether Cooper’s proffered reason for terminating Parker was mere pretext. Therefore, the Court held that Cooper is not entitled to summary judgment on Parker’s claim for retaliation based on his loss of medical benefits.

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