If You Aren’t Exhausted, You Ruined Your Case
Usually, we shy away from doing things to the point of exhaustion. However, in some areas of the law, you have to exhaust all procedural processes, or the merits of your case will not matter. Employment law, including ERISA, is a prime example.
Ms. Moore was a long-time employee of Verizon, going back to 1989. She finally resigned in 2017. One of the important benefits for her was a pension. In evaluating her pension, she thought that some of her earned pension credit was reduced because of maternity leave. She took that leave back in late 1992 and early 1993. If that occurred, that appeared to violate several employment laws, including discrimination under Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Equal Pay Act. It also appeared to violate a consent decree for an EEOC class action against Verizon relating to maternity leave.
In December 2017, Ms. Moore made a claim with Verizon pertaining to the amount of her pension benefit, but her claim was denied, and she was informed that she had 60 days to appeal that denial. She did not appeal that and, in fact, did not communicate with Verizon until June 2021.
At that point, she told Verizon she was seeking legal assistance. However, Ms. Moore did not file a lawsuit until January 2022.
Verizon filed a motion to dismiss because Ms. Moore did not exhaust administrative remedies for the pension benefits claim. Also, Verizon contended that breach of fiduciary duty claims, which pertained to Verizon’s handling of the explanation of Plan benefits and processing of Plaintiff’s claim, were ministerial acts rather than fiduciary duties. Verizon sought dismissal of the employment law claims, too, given that Ms. Moore did not first assert a complaint with the EEOC and obtain a right-to-sue letter on those claims, and so she failed to follow those procedures as well. Last of all, dismissal was asserted as to any violation of the EEOC consent decree, as that would not apply to Ms. Moore. Her pregnancy leave occurred after the class-action time frame.
The judge for her case dismissed all claims after converting the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment. Moore v. Verizon Comm’ns, No. 1:22-cv-51 (RDA/IDD), 2022 WL 16963245 (E.D. Va. Nov. 15, 2022). The court agreed that Ms. Moore failed to exhaust the benefit claim, and she also failed to go through the proper EEOC procedures for employment law claims. Any improper explanation as to Plan benefits and Plaintiff’s claim by Verizon was indeed considered a ministerial act by the court and not a fiduciary duty. Thus, that breach of fiduciary duty claim was dismissed as well. The 11th Circuit would have also dismissed these claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies before filing the suit, although that was not the grounds here. Last of all, the court agreed that Ms. Moore’s pregnancy occurred after the end of the class action time frame relevant to the EEOC consent decree.
Ms. Moore, unfortunately, discovered the procedural unfairness that can arise with employment law claims, including ERISA claims, even if you have a good case. If you do not exhaust the procedures, you won’t properly handle the claims. While exhausting can be very exhausting, that is no excuse if you wish to protect your claims. Failure to exhaust can be as fatal as failing to abide by the statute of limitations.