The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which presides over Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, recently held that an employer could deny employee his severance benefits under an ERISA benefits plan because the employee erased certain files from his computer before returning the laptop to the employer.
In Gomez v. Ericsson, Inc., Gomez worked for telecommunications company for about three years before being laid off. Shortly after Gomez’s termination, the company presented him with a severance agreement. Under its terms, Gomez was required to waive certain claims against the company and return the company’s property in his possession. In exchange for doing so, the company promised Gomez severance pay pursuant to the terms of both its Standard Severance Plan and Top Contributor Enhanced Severance Plan of 2010.
However, after the company received Gomez’s laptop, it determined that he had erased certain files from it. Consequently, the plan administrator for the company determined that the employee did not comply with a provision of his severance agreement requiring the return of all company property because work files were missing on the company laptop he returned. The Court of Appeals agreed with the company.
TAKEAWAY: Most companies are not required to pay severance, but will offer it in return for employees agreeing to release their claims against the company and making certain promises to the employer, such as return of property or an agreement not to compete. Signing such agreements without understanding what they require can cost employees their benefits. Thus, before signing any sort of severance documents, employees should carefully read them and, where necessary, consult with an attorney.
Leiza Dolghih is the founder of Dolghih Law Group PLLC. She is board certified in labor and employment law and has 16+ years of experience in commercial and employment litigation, including trade secrets and non-compete disputes. You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (214) 531-2403.