November 29, 2011
Authored by: benefitsbclp
Has your company recently acquired another company or its assets? Did the purchase agreement require continuation of any particular level of benefit for acquired employees or retirees? If so, the Fifth Circuit appears to believe that the purchase agreement may have amended your company’s employee benefit plans to provide those benefits described in the purchase agreement. What does this mean? That acquired employees and retirees can potentially sue your company for benefits described in a contract to which the employees and retirees were neither a party nor a third party beneficiary.
Evans v. Sterling, 2011 WL 4837847 (5th Cir. 2011).
In December of 1996, Sterling Chemicals acquired American Cyanamid’s (“Cytec”) acrylic fibers business in an asset purchase transaction. In connection with the acquisition, Sterling offered employment to certain Cytec employees. The asset purchase agreement included a provision requiring Sterling to provide certain levels of retiree medical coverage for the acquired Cytec employees unless Cytec agreed to changes. Sterling provided these retiree benefits to Cytec employees under its own retiree plans following consummation of the acquisition.
A few years following its acquisition of the Cytec business, Sterling increased retiree medical premiums for the acquired Cytec employees. The acquired Cytec employees sued, and the Fifth Circuit held that Sterling could not increase retiree premiums for the acquired Cytec employees without Cytec’s consent.
The court reasoned that the asset purchase agreement between Sterling and Cytec amended Sterling’s existing retiree medical programs. Following earlier precedent in Halliburton Co. Benefits Committee v. Graves,