Be Careful Before Denying COBRA to Employee Terminated for Gross Misconduct

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered a decision in Mayes v. WinCo Holdings that reminds employers to be very cautious about denying COBRA coverage based on the gross misconduct exception.

Facts
Defendant grocery store fired the plaintiff, who supervised employees on the night-shift freight crew, for taking a stale cake from the store bakery to share with fellow employees and telling a loss prevention investigator that management had given her permission to do so. The employer deemed these actions theft and dishonesty, and determined that the plaintiff’s behavior rose to the level of gross misconduct under the store’s personnel policies. Therefore, the employer fired the employee and did not offer COBRA coverage to her or her dependents. Plaintiff sued asserting gender discrimination claims under Title VII, a claim under COBRA, and wage claims.

The Law
Under COBRA, an employer does not have to offer COBRA coverage to an employee and their covered dependents if the employee is terminated for “gross misconduct.” Unfortunately, the COBRA statute does not define “gross misconduct,” and court decisions do not provide clear guidance on what that term means.

The Case
The trial court in this case initially ruled in favor of the employer, finding that theft and dishonesty can constitute gross misconduct under COBRA, regardless of the amount involved. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that there was sufficient evidence of the employer’s discrimination to allow the discrimination case to go to trial, and reasoning that if the employer fired the plaintiff for discriminatory reasons then that could not constitute termination for gross misconduct. Therefore, if the termination was discriminatory the employee and her dependents would be entitled to COBRA benefits and the employee could prevail on her COBRA claims.

Lessons for Employers
An employer terminating someone for violating company policy (such as theft), may be reluctant to offer them COBRA coverage, particularly where the employer’s plan is self-insured and, therefore, the employer sees the potential for large medical claims. However, denying COBRA coverage based on the gross misconduct exception is risky for a number of reasons.

First, if the employer is ultimately found to have denied COBRA incorrectly it is exposed to penalties for failing to offer coverage, and the employee and their dependents can get COBRA coverage retroactive all the way back to the initial termination of coverage. That scenario could happen in the Mayes case.

Second, if a terminated employee foresees having large medical claims, they will have a bigger incentive to sue to secure coverage. If they do file suit for COBRA coverage, they will invariably include other claims attacking the termination decision. Therefore, denying COBRA coverage increases the likelihood of a costly lawsuit challenging the termination decision.

Third, defending a case that includes a COBRA claim is also more difficult than a straight wrongful termination claim. It is easier for a judge to grant an employer summary judgment on a wrongful termination claim, which only affects the employee plaintiff, than it is to uphold a denial of COBRA, which directly affects the employee and her children, who are innocent bystanders. In most cases, therefore, an employer is better off defending a wrongful termination suit alone, and not also defending a claim that the employer failed to offer COBRA coverage.

For these reasons, in most cases discretion is the better part of valor and employers should not invoke the gross misconduct exception.

Some employers may be concerned that offering COBRA coverage after terminating someone for gross misconduct may undermine their defense of the termination decision (on the theory that offering COBRA means the termination must not have been for gross misconduct). This can be mitigated by including a self-serving cover letter on the COBRA offer indicating that while the reasons for termination most likely amount to gross misconduct, the employer is voluntarily choosing to offer the employee and their dependents COBRA coverage.

Significant Changes Proposed for Form 5500

On July 21, 2016 the Department of Labor (DOL), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) published proposed rules that would make significant revisions to the Form 5500 Annual Return/Report as of the 2019 filing year.

DOL explains in a Fact Sheet that the proposed form revisions and the DOL’s related implementing regulations are intended to address changes in applicable law and in the employee benefit plan and financial markets, and to accommodate shifts in the data the DOL, IRS and PBGC need for their enforcement priorities, policy analysis, rulemaking, compliance assistance, and educational activities.

The major proposed changes are summarized below:

  • Retirement Plan Changes– The new Form 5500 will request more information about participant accounts, contributions, and distributions. It will also ask about plan design features, including whether the plan uses a safe harbor or SIMPLE design and whether it includes a Roth feature. The form will also ask about investment education and investment advice features, default investments, rollovers used for business start-ups (ROBS), leased employees, and pre-approved plan designs.  Schedule R will include new questions about participation rates, matching contributions, and nondiscrimination.
  • Group Health Plan Changes– The most significant change for health plans is that all ERISA group health plans, including small plans that are currently exempt from filing, will be required to file a Form 5500.  The new filing requirement includes a new Schedule J (Group Health Plan Information), which will list the types of health benefits provided, the plan’s funding method (self insured or fully insured), information about participant and employer contributions, information about COBRA coverage, whether the plan is grandfathered under health care reform, and whether it includes a high deductible health plan, HRA, or health FSA.  In addition, most filings (except those for small fully insured plans) would have to provide financial and claims information, disclose stop-loss carriers, third party administrators and other plan service providers, and provide details regarding compliance with HIPAA, GINA, health care reform and other compliance issues.
  • Other Changes– The proposed changes affect many of the existing Form 5500 schedules, including:
    • Schedule C would be revised to coordinate with the service provider fee disclosure rules.
    • Schedule C would be required from some small plans currently exempt from filing it.
    • Schedule H would be expanded to include questions on fee disclosures, annual fair market valuations, designated investment alternatives, investment managers, plan terminations, asset transfers, administrative expenses and uncashed participant checks.
    • Schedule I would be eliminated.
    • Small plans that currently file Schedule I would generally need to file Schedule H.

Effective Date– The new Form 5500 is expected to be required as of the 2019 plan year filings.

Proposed Rule Making Form 5500 Changes

IRS Notice 2015-87 Provides Further Guidance on the Application of ACA Market Reforms to Employer Payment Plans, Employer Mandate and COBRA

On December 16, 2015, the Department of Treasury and IRS issued Notice 2015-87 which provides further guidance on the application of the market reforms that apply to group health plans under the Affordable care Act (ACA) to various types of employer health care arrangements. The notice includes guidance that covers:

(1) health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), including HRAs integrated with a group health plan, and similar employer-funded health care arrangements; and

(2) group health plans under which an employer reimburses an employee for some or all of the premium expenses incurred for an individual health insurance policy, such as a reimbursement arrangement described in Revenue Ruling 61-146, or an arrangement under which the employer uses its funds to directly pay the premium for an individual health insurance policy covering the employee (collectively, an employer payment plan).  The notice supplements the guidance provided in Notice 2013-54; FAQs about the Affordable Care Act Implementation (Part XXII) issued by the Department of Labor on November 6, 2014; Notice 2015-17; and final regulations implementing the market reform provisions of the ACA published on November 18, 2015.

iconsee our previous post on this topic.

Notice 2015-87 also clarifies certain aspects of the employer shared responsibility provisions of § 4980H, and  clarifies the application of the COBRA continuation coverage rules to unused amounts in a health flexible spending arrangement (health FSA) carried over and available in later years pursuant to Notice 2013-71, and conditions that may be put on the use of carryover amounts.