By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and William David

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision district court ruling affirms that in a benefit discrimination claim, just as in a typical claim of employment discrimination, to survive summary judgment a plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant’s given lawful reason for taking an adverse action was pretext.

Temporal proximity between an adverse action and an enrollment in an ERISA plan (without more), is insufficient to overcome an employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination. Such was the decision of the district court for the Southern District of Texas in Francis v. South Central Houston Action Council Inc.

Plaintiff, was hired by Defendant in February 2012.  A year later she enrolled in Defendant’s medical plan. A month later she was terminated for being insubordinate, and for violating company policy regarding absenteeism and tardiness.

Plaintiff sued for wrongful discharge in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), employment discrimination based on national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), and age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Her employer moved for summary judgment for all three claims, and the court granted the motion in its entirety.  Because this blog is focused on ERISA, we limit our discussion to the court’s analysis of the ERISA claim.

In the Complaint, Plaintiff asserted that the proximity in time between her benefits enrollment and her termination established she was terminated in violation of ERISA for enrolling in the plan.

The Court rejected this argument. It held that Defendant offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Plaintiff’s termination, and thus it was Plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate pretext. The Court found Plaintiff failed to make this showing as she simply argued that the temporal proximity between her enrollment in the plan and her termination raised a question of fact sufficient to survive summary judgment.

What is the takeaway here for employers? The decision reinforces that in a benefit discrimination claim, just as in a typical claim of employment discrimination, a plaintiff must meet its burden of proof and not rely on happenstance if it hopes to survive a motion for summary judgment.