The scenario seems fit for a soap opera, but anyone paying attention to the lot in life of employees compared to that of corporations and their high-paid executives would recognize it is all too real.
Melissa Amschwand-Bellinger lost her 30-year-old husband, Thomas, to cancer in 2001. Thomas, an employee of the Spherion Corp., thought he did all the right things so his young wife would not suffer financially.
Spherion, however, told Melissa she would not collect any of the $426,000 insurance policy her husband had through them.
Believing the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was just that -- security for employees, Melissa took Spherion to court.
She had reason to believe the court would rule in her favor. After all, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 is a federal law that allegedly sets minimum standards for most voluntarily established pension and health plans in private industry to provide protection for individuals in these plans.
It requires plans to establish a grievance and appeals process for participants to get benefits from their plans; and gives participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.
Pretty clear? Apparently not. Melissa Amschwand-Bellinger lost.
The federal appeals court denial of her claim was based on Supreme Court rulings that companies who offer health, life and retirement benefits under ERISA cannot be sued for large amounts of money and damages. So, instead of receiving the death benefit her husband was promised and performed all the necessary requirements to insure, Melissa received a refund of the few thousand dollars in insurance premiums she and her husband had paid.
ERISA supposedly is responsible for safeguarding pension money from misappropriation. When the law was passed in 1974, workers believed executives would no longer be able to use pension funds improperly and would have to pay pensions as promised.
The more than 250 employees of ANB Financial, which failed May 9, will soon learn if ERISA carries any weight for them. The employees' legal complaint alleges bank officers did not follow ERISA's guidelines of exercising discretionary control, solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries.
It claims bank directors continued to invest in company stock after executives knew the bank was in danger as a result of federal regulators' findings that it had unsafe and unsound business practices. This almost eight years after Enron filed for bankruptcy, leaving its employees jobless and without retirement benefits.
In the Amschwand-Bellinger case, at least one federal judge recognized the apparent unfairness of the ruling driven by previous Supreme Court decisions.
"The facts... scream out for a remedy beyond the simple return of premiums," Judge Fortunato Benavides of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
Congress could amend ERISA. As a matter of fact U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., sponsored the Pension Protection Act, ERISA Amendments of 2008. The bill was introduced May 23 and referred to three House committees the same day. Nothing has been done since.
Another House Bill on technical corrections for pension protection was introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., in August 2007. The House passed Rangel's bill in March of this year, but the Senate has not acted on it.
These are precarious financial times. The courts have made it clear the current law does nothing to protect employees. Employees should not have to worry about insurance policies and pensions that are supposed to be, but are not, protected by law.
As the November elections approach, it is a good time to question those who represent us or want to represent us as to why beneficiaries and employees are not protected by an ERISA law that claims it provides security for employees.
-- The Daily Times, Delaware County