Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Where is a Jury When You Need One?

Must be what the plaintiff was thinking in Koons v. Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (8th Cir. 5/7/04) [pdf]. After working 15 years, the plaintiff, the head of security for the company was losing his position because he did not want to transfer to New York from Kansas City. He worked on under both a severance and a key employee retention plan. What had been an exemplary performance record soured during the transition period as he was forced to end another employee's termination early. When his replacement was hired more than 6 months before his departure date he was left with relatively little to do and in fact he was urged to retire by his successor. Instead he agreed to an earlier termination date of about six weeks. Although still on the payroll he had little to do and in fact with full knowledge of the company he began to pursue a real estate career. In doing so, one thing he did was talk a lot on his company cell phone, including 3,321 minutes in August. The same month there was also a complaint from an employee who had received an announcement from the plaintiff about his new real estate adventure. That email was from a list the company considered and marked confidential. After that it becomes less clear what happened, but the plaintiff was ultimately confronted with these two issues and when he maintained they were appropriate under company policies, was terminated one month before his agreed date for violation of company policy. The problem, for him, was that the termination for policy violations cost him the $200,000 or so he was entitled to in severance pay. His claim, or at least the one that made it to the 8th Circuit, was whether he was entitled to the benefits and also whether or not he had been terminated to interfere with his receipt of an ERISA benefit. The answer by the magistrate who tried the case was no, and the 8th Circuit noting the deference it was required to give to such decisions upheld it. Since it seems a very favorable set of facts and an unusual course of conduct by the employer, the extremely favorable outcome for the employer, makes one wonder what is missing from the record. Maybe nothing more than strict adherence to the rule of law, but I am almost certain that this is one case where the plaintiff most sorely wished he had been allowed to argue his case in front of a jury of his peers.

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