ERISA-District Court Rules That An Employer Did Not Fire Plaintiff In Order To Interfere With Her Attainment Of An Employee Benefit

In Dinsmore v. Covenant Healthcare, Case No. 10-13451-BC (E.D. Michigan 2011), the Plaintiff, Debra Dinsmore (“Dinsmore”), filed a complaint against her former employer, Covenant Healthcare (“Covenant”), and her former supervisor, Kathy Buchanon (“Buchanon”). She alleged that (among other things) the defendants had fired her in order to interfere with her attainment of an ERISA-protected benefit, in violation of section 510 of ERISA.

In this case, Dinsmore had worked at Covenant as an R.N. for over twenty-five years. At that point, Buchanon approved Dinsmore for an “occasional status” position, which required her to work on an intermittent scheduled or unscheduled basis. Dinsmore alleges that she took the occasional status position-as opposed to a job elsewhere- in order to remain an “employee” so that she could complete her qualification for participation in the retiree health plan. However, since she was not willing to work enough hours to justify her occasional status position, and after giving her the opportunity to find an alternative position at Covenant, which she could not do, Dinsmore’s employment at Covenant was terminated. This suit ensued.

In analyzing the case, the Court said that, to establish a prima facie case and avoid summary judgment on an ERISA claim of interference with the attainment of an ERISA-protected benefit, a plaintiff must show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that there was: (1) prohibited employer conduct; (2) taken for the purpose of interfering; (3) with the attainment of any right to which the employee may become entitled. Further, to establish the prima facie case, a plaintiff must show that an employer had a specific intent to violate ERISA. The Court concluded that Dinsmore could not establish a prima facie case. It said that Dinsmore offered no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that the defendants’ actions were taken for the purpose of interfering with an ERISA- protected benefit. Dinsmore had offered subjective suspicions about the defendants’ reasons for firing her, had claimed that Buchanon knew Dinsmore’s desire to keep her occasional status position in order to qualify for the retiree health benefits, and had noted that Covenant would be the payor of her retiree health benefits. However, the Court found that those offerings were insufficient to establish a prima facie case of purposeful interference. The Court said that Dinsmore is required to prove more than the fact that her termination precluded her from vesting in the retiree health benefits, in order to establish purposeful interference. Dinsmore’s evidence is to the contrary, since she admits that: (a) she was not willing to work some of the shifts which were offered to her and which she initially accepted and (b) that she was given an opportunity to apply for an alternative position with Covenant to maintain the possibility of obtaining the retiree health benefits. Since Dinsmore was unable to establish the prima facie case, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

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