The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the anti-retaliation provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) protect employees who make informal complaints concerning benefits due to them under employer-sponsored benefit plans.

In George v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, Inc., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 18571 (7th Cir. Sept. 4, 2012), Victor George, an employee of Junior Achievement, complained to his supervisors that his employer had failed to deposit money withheld from his paycheck into his retirement and health savings accounts. Such a failure would constitute a breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA. George raised the issue with members of the company’s board of directors, and eventually the company reimbursed him for the missed deposits. Still, Junior Achievement terminated George’s employment shortly thereafter. George maintained that Junior Achievement fired him because he complained about the company’s breach of its fiduciary duties.

While other circuits, such as the Second and Fourth, have interpreted ERISA’s anti-retaliation provisions narrowly (holding that ERISA only protects against retaliation in instances when an employee participates in a formal investigation or responds to a formal inquiry), the Seventh Circuit decided that an employee’s unsolicited internal complaint about a potential ERISA violation was enough to trigger the protections of section 510 of ERISA.

This section states,

It shall be unlawful for any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, or discriminate against any person because he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding relating to this [Act].

29 U.S.C. § 1140.

While the text is “a mess of unpunctuated conjunctions and prepositions,” the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that it protects employee “inquiries” about their benefits, not simply employee responses to an employer’s benefits-related questioning or investigation. Thus, employees cannot be fired for asking reasonable questions about their rights to benefits.

If you have questions about your retirement, health or disability benefits, please contact Hawks Quindel, S.C. for a consultation with one of our experienced ERISA attorneys.

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