Roy Robinson was a long-time worker for AT&T. The company began to downsize its workforce in 2020. As an inducement for volunteers, it created a “surplus” program. If one had 23 years or more of service, he would be eligible for benefits including severance pay, life, dental, health insurance, and a few others. Those benefits were called MTP benefits.
Robinson had three co-employees who all had more than 23 years with the company. They volunteered to be considered surplus and thus eligible for the MTP benefit. Robinson did not volunteer. He let his supervisor know that he could not volunteer because he did not qualify for the MTP benefit – he was approximately two months short of the 23-year mark.
The supervisor ignored the three volunteers and selected Robinson as “surplus” such that he would be terminated. Robinson pleaded with the company to allow him to work since he was only 50 days short of the 23-year mark. The company refused. Robinson was terminated. He did not qualify for the MTP benefit.
Robinson filed a lawsuit against AT&T alleging interference with his right to receive benefits under ERISA §510. AT&T filed a motion to dismiss and alleged that Robinson failed to timely exhaust available administrative remedies before filing his lawsuit.
The court agreed with Robinson – that he did not have an administrative remedy available to him before he filed his complaint. The court noted 11th Circuit precedent which requires plaintiffs in ERISA actions to exhaust “available” administrative remedies before filing suit. The plan that was applicable to the MTP benefit stated that an individual having a claim “for benefits” or for unfair treatment under the plan could file a claim.
The plaintiff's claim was for a wrongful discharge or interference with his right to attain the years of service necessary to be eligible for and thus file a claim for benefits. There was no unfair treatment relating to a benefit claim, nor had any claim for benefits accrued. Thus, no exhaustion of any claim remedy was necessary. There was no procedure specified for his type of claim. AT&T's motion to dismiss was denied and Robinson was able to proceed.
An interesting case. Antics like this one by employers are just one reason why having an experienced ERISA attorney on your client's case is crucial to its success. Contact us today if your client has an ERISA long-term disability, short-term disability, life insurance, or retirement benefits claim.