Justice Department Charges Employer, Pension Plan With Violating USERRA Reemployment Rights

The Justice Department’s announcement today of its filing of a lawsuit charging County Employees’ and Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund of Cook County (Cook Pension Plan) and Cook County with willfully violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) by refusing to allow an employee to make catch up contributions to the employer’s pension plan when she returned from military leave. As the Obama Administration continues to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and other deployments, the suit is a timely reminder to employers of the importance of ensuring that their businesses properly honor the rights of returning service members under USERRA, the expanded military related medical leave rules of the Family & Medical Leave Act and other applicable laws.

USERRA & Other Reemployment Rights

USERRA generally provides that an individual who leaves a job to serve in the uniformed services is generally entitled to continue medical coverage for up to 26 months while absent for a qualifying military leave, reemployment by the previous employer upon timely return from military leave and, upon reemployment, to restoration of service, promotion, benefits and other rights of employment. 

As part of these reemployment rights, qualifying service members timely returning from military leave are entitled to receive credit for benefits, including employee pension plan benefits, that would have accrued but for the employee’s absence due to the military service. USERRA’s pension-related provisions generally require that pension plans treat a service member who is called to active duty as if the service member had no break in service for purpose of the administration of pension benefits when the service member timely returns to employment at the end of a military leave.  In addition to these pension rights, USERRA also requires employers honor other rights to employment, promotion and other benefits and rights of employment.

Beyond these USERRA employment rights, service members taking or returning from active duty often enjoy various other employment and other protections under various other federal and state laws, many of which have been expanded in recent years. Under requirements of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act (SSCRA), for instance, creditors including a pension plan, employer loan program or credit union generally are required to drop interest charges down to 6 percent on debt owed by those called to active duty for the period of such military service. Further, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the loan will not fail to be a qualified loan under ERISA solely because the interest rate is capped by SSCRA.  These and other provisions of federal law often require pension and profit-sharing plans that allow plan loans to change loan terms and tailor other special treatment of participants who are on military leave.

In addition to the specific protection given to a service member, employers also need to be ready to honor certain family leave protections afforded to qualifying family members or caregivers of service members added to the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in recent years.  As amended to include these military leave related protections, the FMLA may require certain employees who are the spouse, son, daughter, or parent of a military member to take to 12 weeks of FMLA leave during any 12-month period to address the most common issues that arise when a military member is deployed to a foreign country, such as attending military sponsored functions, making appropriate financial and legal arrangements, and arranging for alternative childcare. This provision applies to the families of members of both the active duty and reserve components of the Armed Forces.  Meanwhile, the “Military Caregiver Leave” provisions added to the FMLA may entitle certain employees who are the spouse, son, daughter, parent or next of kin of a covered service member to up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave during a single 12-month period to care for the service member who is undergoing medical treatment, recuperation, or therapy, is otherwise in outpatient status, or is otherwise on the temporary disability retired list, for a serious injury or illness incurred or aggravated in the line of duty on active duty. These provisions apply to the families of members of both the active duty and reserve components of the Armed Forces.  The expansion of these requirements, updating of regulation, and rising enforcement by private plaintiffs and the government make it advisable that businesses take all necessary steps to ensure their employment practices, employee benefit plans, fringe benefit programs and other practices are updated and administered to comply with the current requirements of USERAA,  SSCRA, the FMLA and other applicable federal and state laws.

Justice Department Cook County Lawsuit

The latest in a growing number of lawsuits against businesses for violating the employment and other rights of military service members brought by the Justice Department, Department of Labor and private plaintiffs, the lawsuit against Cook County and the Cook Pension Plan highlights the growing enforcement and liability risks that U.S. employers and their employee benefit plans face for failing to properly honor the rights of military service people under USERRA and other laws.

On April 17, 2013, the Justice Department sued Cook County and the Cook Pension Plan with violating USERRA by refusing to allow U.S. Army Reserve Member Latoya Hayward to lawfully contribute to her pension for the time she was serving in the armed forces.

The Justice Department complaint charges that Hayward began working for John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, which is owned and operated by Cook County in 2008. During her employment with Stroger Hospital, Hayward was mobilized for a two year tour of duty with the Army Reserves starting on July 27, 2009. While on active service, Hayward served as a nurse case manager at Walter Reed Hospital as part of the Warrior Transition Brigade.

The Justice Department complaint alleges that when Hayward returned from duty, the County Employees’ and Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund of Cook County notified her not only that she was ineligible to make payments into her pension for the 90-day grace period following her active military service, but also that her employee contributions for the two-year period of her active military service would be subject to a 3 percent interest fee. 

According to Hayward’s complaint, both of the County Employees’ and Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund of Cook County’s requirements for her participation in her employer’s pension plan violated USERRA’s pension protection provisions.

Enforcement of USERRA & Other Rights of Military Service Members Rising

In announcing the suit against Cook County and the Cook Pension Plan, Jocelyn Samuels, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division warned, “The Justice Department is committed to vigorously enforcing federal laws that protect the employment rights of our service members.”

Viewed in the context of a series of other recent suits and settlements, the suit against Cook County and the Cook Pension Plan is one of a growing number of lawsuits brought by the Justice Department, Department of Labor Department of Veterans Affairs and other government and private litigants reflects that the Obama Administration is acting on this commitment. 

The Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment & Training Service (VETS) reported to Congress that in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, VETS reviewed 1,548 new unique USERRA complaint cases, up 110 cases from those received in FY 2010.  Nearly 35 percent of the complaints reviewed by VETS contained allegations of some form of employment discrimination on the basis of past, present, or future, military service, status, or obligations.  An additional 25 percent of the complaints involved allegations of improper reinstatement into civilian jobs following military service.  See  2011 VETS USERRA Report To Congress.  

Recent litigation and settlements by the Justice Department and other agencies bear out that the Obama Administration is continuing to make enforcement of military service member rights a priority during the 2012 FY that began in October.  See, e.g.,  Michael Sipos and Gary Smith v. FlightSafety Services Corporation, Co. Consent Decree (April 4, 2013);  Mervin Jones v. Jerome County Sheriff’s Office, ID complaint (January 7, 2013); Service Members to Receive $39 Million for Violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act; Justice Department Settles Disability Discrimination Case Involving Disabled Veteran in Utah; Justice Department Reaches $12 Million Settlement to Resolve Violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by Capital One; and Justice Department Files Complaint Against Forsyth County, North Carolina, Sheriff for Violating the Employment Rights of Army National Guard Soldier


Given this heightened emphasis on enforcement, U.S. businesses should act to update their policies, practices, training and other compliance and risk management practices to ensure that their employment, lending, and other practices for dealing with military service members and their families are properly designed and administered to minimize the risk that their business will become one of these enforcement statistics.

For Help or More Information

If you need help reviewing and updating, administering or defending your  human resources, employee benefits or other compliance and risk management practices in these or other areas, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 24 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters. 

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.  As a part of this practice, Ms. Stamer extensively has worked with U.S. businesses and benefit plans to manage, prevent and resolve concerns involving the rights of military service members and others as well as spoken and written extensively on these concerns.  Examples of some of her recent articles on military service members employment and other risks include her workshop and accompanying training manual, When The Military Comes Home: USERRA, VEVRRA, FMLA, COBRA, HIPAA and Beyond, New USERRA Militarty Reservist Regulations; Big Penalty for Lender Shows Risks of Violating Military Service or Vets Rights and others.

A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials on regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns. 

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations.   She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications.   You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

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Other Helpful Resources & Other Information

If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in one or more of the following other recent articles published in this electronic Solutions Law publications available for review here including:

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©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-Exclusive License To Republish Granted To Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All Other Rights Reserved.

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