Carlson v. Northrop Grumman Severance Plan, No. 22-1764 (7th Cir. 2023)Annotate this Case
Northrop laid off workers in 2012 and did not provide them all with severance benefits. Its Severance Plan provides that a laid-off employee regularly scheduled to work at least 20 hours a week will receive severance benefits if that employee “received a cover memo, signed by a Vice President of Human Resources.” The plaintiffs, who did not receive this “HR Memo,” filed suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1001– 1461.
The parties agreed to have a magistrate resolve the case, 28 U.S.C. 636(c). After the suit was certified as a class action, the district judge resumed control at Northrop's request, finding that the increased stakes constituted “good cause” for withdrawing the reference. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment, ruling that the Plan gives the HR Department discretion to choose who gets severance pay.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed, first finding no abuse of discretion in the withdrawal of the reference order. The Plan makes the receipt of severance benefits contingent on the receipt of an HR Memo, which the class members did not get. Welfare-benefit plans under ERISA—unlike retirement plans—need not provide for vesting, and the terms of welfare-benefit plans are entirely in the control of the entities that establish them. When making design decisions, employers may act in their own interests and may include a discretionary component. Rights under ERISA are not subject to estoppel. The plan itself—not past practice—always controls.