Unsafe Workplace Conditions & the ERISA Shield

Being a home healthcare nurse can be a very challenging job. Deanna Pierce knows that all too well. She is also familiar with the ERISA games played by employers relating to an unsafe workplace environment. Sometimes those games are inappropriate and repulsive. Her case, Pierce v. Aveanna Healthcare, LLC, Civil 1:21-cv-287-RP (W.D. Tex. Feb. 4, 2022), involves a sexual assault at the workplace where the defendants attempted to use ERISA as a shield against legal liability for their wrongful conduct.

Facts of the Case:

  • Pierce worked for Aveanna Healthcare, LLC.
  • She was required to provide nursing services for a child in a home. The child’s father began making aggressive advances toward her, so she texted her supervisor for help.
  • The home had a history of police calls for assault, bodily injuries, and family violence. Sadly, no help arrived, and as a result, Pierce was “violently and sexually assaulted by the patient’s father for an extended period of time.”
  • Aveanna had a self-funded welfare benefit plan which provided ERISA health care benefits.
  • Pierce sought medical care under the plan, which continued from July 2019 through April 2020.
  • At that point, she was terminated and denied further benefits under the plan. She needed further care due to her significant physical and mental injuries.
  • After her appeal of the termination of her healthcare benefits was denied, Pierce filed a lawsuit claiming the benefits, but also asserting claims for negligence and gross negligence for providing an unsafe workplace environment. Her husband joined in the lawsuit.
  • In response, Aveanna argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it asserted claims outside of ERISA’s preemptive authority (“Plaintiffs’ claims against Aveanna for negligence and gross negligence under Texas common law should be dismissed because they are preempted by ERISA”).
  • Defendants argued that ERISA supersedes any state cause of action that relates to any employee benefit plan, citing ERISA’s conflict preemption clause, 29 U.S.C. §1144(a), which states in part that, with certain exceptions, ERISA “shall supersede any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” Pierce v. Aveanna Healthcare, LLC, Civil 1:21-cv-287-RP, at *3-4 (W.D. Tex. Feb. 4, 2022).

Can a health care plan participant suffer a sexual assault on the job and then see ERISA bar the negligence claims which caused or exacerbated the damages related to it?

The magistrate judge said no. “The Court agrees with Plaintiffs. The Fifth Circuit and this Court have found repeatedly that negligence claims that an employer maintained an unsafe workplace are not preempted where, as here, they do not ‘relate to the ERISA plan. See, e.g., McAteer v. Silverleaf Resorts, Inc., 514 F.3d 411, 417 (5th Cir. 2008) (stating that ‘[s]tate law negligence claims for failing to maintain a safe workplace are not preempted by ERISA’)”. Id. at *4.

Hopefully, there will be a quick resolution to this case. ERISA causes some crazy and unfair results, but in this case, it did not provide a shield for an employer that fails to provide a safe workplace environment.

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