Retaliate for Seeking Benefits?

Probably the only really note worthy decision out of the First Circuit with regard to ERISA while I was out of the office is this one here, in Kouvchinov v. Parametric Technology Corp., which addressed the standards for proving a claim of retaliatory job action in response to a claim for ERISA governed benefits. The First Circuit found that a plaintiff has to come forward with evidence of a specific intent to retaliate to maintain the claim, and that the mere, possibly coincidental, overlap of an adverse job action and a recent claim for benefits is not enough to sustain a claim. The First Circuit stated:

The plaintiff's overarching claim is that the defendants cashiered him in retaliation for his exercise of the right to receive short-term disability (STD) benefits under an employee benefit plan, thereby violating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§1101-1461, and tortiously interfering with an advantageous business relationship. ... Here, however, the plaintiff suggests that proof of specific intent is not required because the discrimination complained of is retaliatory rather than preemptive. . . . We reject that suggestion. The plaintiff fails to appreciate that, without a specific intent requirement, every terminated employee who has exercised his or her right to benefits would, ipso facto, have a potential retaliation claim against the employer. ... That would destroy ERISA's carefully calibrated balance of rights, remedies, and responsibilities in the workplace. Presumably for this reason, every federal court of appeals to have addressed the question has demanded a showing of specific intent in ERISA retaliation cases. ... Accordingly, we hold that a plaintiff must make a plausible showing of specific intent in order to survive summary judgment on an ERISA retaliation claim.

I don’t have much truck with the decision, though others do. Call me naive, but I can’t say in my practice or among my clients - whether companies, sponsors, administrators or participants - I have seen much conduct that would even possibly raise these issues, regardless of how strict a standard of proof is imposed on a plaintiff/participant.