Recently, a New Jersey court allowed a mechanic to pursue his claim that he was fired because his employer wanted to avoid paying health benefits related to his wife’s cancer treatment.

The employee, Christian Pailleret, began working at Jersey Construction, Inc. in 2005. He had no record of discipline and got a merit-based raise in mid-2006. Four months later, Pailleret submitted reimbursement claims for “tens of thousands of dollars” to the Jersey Construction Inc. Employee Health and Wellness Benefits Plan for his wife’s cancer treatment. Pailleret alleged after submitting the reimbursement claims, he was given “degrading” work beneath his skill level and was eventually terminated without explanation or notice.

Pailleret claimed Jersey Construction violated § 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee for exercising any right under an employee benefit plan. That means an employer cannot harass or terminate an employee in order to keep that employee from obtaining an ERISA-protected benefit. In this case, it was “plausible” that Jersey Construction fired Pailleret with the intent of violating ERISA by “interfering” with Pailleret’s right to claim health benefits.

Jersey Construction argued that the employee’s only evidence of illegal discrimination was timing – that he was fired shortly after he claimed a protected benefit. The court disagreed. While Pailleret had no “smoking gun” evidence, the timing, combined with the fact that Pailleret had no documented performance problems, was assigned to tasks beneath his skill level and was fired without notice, made it plausible that he was terminated so the company could avoid paying benefits. Therefore the court let the case advance.

This case underscores the importance of having good documentation about your legitimate reasons for terminating an employee. If Jersey Construction had presented a legitimate reason for the termination, this case might have been dismissed. This case also serves as a reminder that discrimination cases are not just related to race, gender or age; they can also arise under ERISA, which protects an employee’s right to claim benefits.