In Hrdlicka v. General Motors, LLC, No. 22-1328, __F.4th__, 2023 WL 2604691 (6th Cir. Mar. 23, 2023), Plaintiff-Appellant Haley Hrdlicka appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Defendant-Appellee General Motors, LLC (“GM”) on her several employment related claims, including violation of Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). On August 21, 2019, GM terminated Plaintiff due to well-documented chronic attendance issues. It was unknown by GM and Plaintiff at the time that she was suffering from a brain tumor and Persistent Depressive Disorder. GM has an “Open Door Policy” that allows certain employees to appeal their termination through JustUs, a third-party company charged with determining whether GM followed their policies and practices in terminating an employee. JustUs’s review is limited to the facts known to GM as of the day that the termination decision was made and the action was taken. Plaintiff appealed her termination to JustUs in late August 2019. While her appeal was pending, Plaintiff received her diagnosis and underwent surgical removal of the brain tumor. Plaintiff’s husband advised JustUs of the brain tumor. JustUs denied Plaintiff’s appeal on the basis that Plaintiff continued to have attendance issues after being made aware of the issue in her mid-year review and in the “Attendance Letter” GM gave her just before her termination. JustUs found the termination to be consistent with GM’s policies and there was a lack of suitable evidence to substantiate Plaintiff’s allegations of depression at the time of her termination.
One of several claims Plaintiff brought against GM was a claim for violation of ERISA § 510. This Section prohibits an employer from taking certain adverse action against an employee for the purpose of interfering with the employee’s rights under an employee-benefit plan. For Plaintiff to prevail on this claim, she must show “the existence of (1) prohibited employer conduct (2) taken for the purpose of interfering (3) with the attainment of any right to which the employee may become entitled.” Smith v. Ameritech, 129 F.3d 857, 865 (6th Cir. 1997). The employer must have had a specific intent to violate ERISA and the employee must show that interfering with her rights was at least a “motivating factor” in the adverse employment action decision. If an employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer can rebut by offering a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its challenged action.” The burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the proffered reason was pretextual.
Here, Plaintiff argued that GM’s denial of her open-door appeal was a violation of ERISA. The court found that GM had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for denying the open-door appeal. Further, Plaintiff did not show that the reason was pretextual or that interference with her rights was a motivating factor. JustUs considered the facts existing at the time of termination, including Plaintiff’s numerous attendance issues. Plaintiff points to the fact that JustUs denied her appeal shortly after being informed of her brain tumor but this temporal proximity does not rebut the fact that JustUs based its decision on the facts available to GM at the time it terminated Plaintiff. Her post-termination diagnoses did not factor into the analysis. For these reasons, Plaintiff’s ERISA claim fails.
This decision amends and supersedes the decision the Sixth Circuit issued in this case on February 7, 2023. See Hrdlicka v. Gen. Motors, LLC, 59 F.4th 791 (6th Cir. 2023).
*Please note that this blog is a summary of a reported legal decision and does not constitute legal advice. This blog has not been updated to note any subsequent change in status, including whether a decision is reconsidered or vacated. The case above was handled by other law firms, but if you have questions about how the developing law impacts your ERISA benefit claim, the attorneys at Roberts Disability Law, P.C. may be able to advise you so please contact us.
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