The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday had to determine how best to read Section 510 of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to rule whether a former vice president of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana was fired because of his protests about the company’s failure to deposit money into his retirement account.
Victor George discovered in the summer of 2009 that money withheld from his paycheck wasn’t being deposited into his retirement and health savings accounts. He lodged several complaints with Junior Achievement accountants and some executives and contacted the U.S. Department of Labor. He declined to file a written complaint, however. In October 2009, he received checks in the amount owed, plus interest.
George was contemplating retirement when, in early January 2010, JA’s president told George not to come to work the next day. He believes his protests to how JA handled his retirement funds led to his firing. Section 510 of the act prohibits retaliation “against any person because he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding relating to this [Act].”
Junior Achievement argued – to which the trial court agreed – that the language doesn’t cover George’s complaint. The Circuit courts have disagreed about the scope of Section 510. Some have observed that “testify” and “proceeding” denote formal actions and that “inquiry” also should be understood as a formal proceeding. Two Circuits held Section 510 applies to unsolicited informal complaints, and the 9th Circuit stated that reporting misconduct is a necessary step in the commencement of any formal inquiry.
“We conclude that the best reading of §510 is one that divides the world into the informal sphere of giving information in or in response to inquiries and the formal sphere of testifying in proceedings. This means that an employee’s grievance is within §510’s scope whether or not the employer solicited information. It does not mean that §510 covers trivial bellyaches — the statute requires the retaliation to be ‘because’ of a protected activity,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in , 11-3291. “Someone must ask a question, and the adverse action must be caused by the question or the response. What’s more, the grievance must be a plausible one, though not necessarily one on which the employee is correct.”
“George notified Junior Achievement of the potential breach of its fiduciary duties and asked (repeatedly) what would be done to remedy the situation. Those conversations involved an ‘inquiry,’ as we understand that word, because Junior Achievement responded to them rather than ignoring them,” he continued.
The judges reversed summary judgment and noted the District Court must decide whether there is some other ground on which this case may be resolved short of trial or whether a trial on causation is necessary.