Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Employer Unable To Condition ERISA Severance Payments on Signing Undisclosed Non-Compete

For those of you dying to know more about ERISA, here ya go.

First, the basics. ERISA is a sweeping federal statute that governs employee health, welfare, and benefit plans. Employers often institute ERISA-based plans and within those plans provide that terminated employees are eligible to receive severance benefits under certain condictions. For instance, employees who have been discharged without cause or who worked at the company for a certain number of years may be eligible for severance pay, even if that is not contained within an employment contract.

Simple enough. But ERISA-based plans almost always contain the requirement that an employee, as a condition of receiving severance pay, execute a release. That makes perfect sense, for it would be somewhat absurd for an employer to pay out benefits and not get some assurance that a Title VII charge won't arrive in the mail months later.

Severance plan documents often attach a form release for employees to see, and from there, it's just a matter of filling in the blanks at the time the severance benefit rights accrue. But what rights does an employer have to insert in a severance document the requirement that the employee sign a non-compete?

According to one Illinois federal court, none.

The case of Pactiv Corp. v. Rupert dealt with a case where the ERISA plan simply stated that the employee's separation agreement must "be in a form acceptable to the company." The plan documents mentioned nothing about a non-compete. Though Pactiv understandably was concerned that its ex-employee was in a position to capitalize on knowledge he gained while at Pactiv, the court refused to imply a requirement into the severance plan Pactiv adopted.

The court stated: "Reserving the right to have a separation agreement in a 'form acceptable to the Company' is not notice to an ERISA beneficiary that a non-competition covenant could be required as a condition to receive benefits." ERISA plans are not subject to ad hoc amendments or interpretation.


Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Opinion Date: 11/1/12
Cite: Pactiv Corp. v. Rupert, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158413 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 1, 2012)
Favors: Employee
Law: Federal/Illinois

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