Sixth Circuit Addresses Suspension of Benefits
A recent case decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals gives insight into suspension of
benefits. In Helgemo v. Operating Engineers Local 324 Pension Fund, a union member retired from his position as a heavy equipment operator, where he often worked in marine-related construction jobs operating cranes, piling equipment, backhoes, and other heavy machinery. He was receiving pension benefits when he began working for two marine shipping companies under the job titles of “handyman” and “laborer.” In both positions, he operated heavy equipment to move goods throughout the Great Lakes.
He did not disclose this work to the pension fund, but the fund suspended his benefits upon discovering his work. The plan allowed for suspension if a participant works a job in the "same industry" as a fund-contributing employer, and in the "same trade or craft" in which he was originally employed. The retiree disputed the suspension, arguing that his new jobs were different from his former union job. He submitted documents demonstrating that his post-retirement employment entailed diverse tasks such as roof repair, plumbing, and other odd jobs, but also confirming that the roles entailed significant time operating heavy machinery. The fund ultimately upheld the suspension, finding that both his union position and post-retirement position were in the same general maritime industry and both involved operating heavy machinery.
The Sixth Circuit Court offered wide deference to the board of trustees and affirmed their decision regarding the suspension. The court found that the trustees’ broad or generalized interpretations of “same industry” and “same trade or craft” were acceptable, and a reasonable interpretation of those phrases could include the retiree’s work.
While suspension of benefits questions are always unique because the specific facts and circumstances of each occasion will differ, this case exemplifies that a retiree does not need to be performing the exact same work in the exact same industry for a suspension to be appropriate.