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Aaron Hoffman v. Sara Lee Corporation and Sara Lee Corporation Executive Pay Plan For Key Employees

February 8, 2012

AARON HOFFMAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SARA LEE CORPORATION AND SARA LEE CORPORATION EXECUTIVE PAY PLAN FOR KEY EMPLOYEES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Allow Discovery in a suit concerning denial of severance pay under a plan covered by the Employment Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Aaron Hoffman ("Plaintiff" or "Hoffman") worked for Sara Lee Corporation ("Sara Lee") from November 8, 1999 to November 30, 2010. As Sara Lee's Director of Investor Relations from 1999 to 2001, and then as the Vice President of Investor Relations, Hoffman was eligible for benefits under the Sara Lee Corporation Severance Pay Plan for Key Employees ("the Plan").

Sometime between 2009 and leaving the company, Hoffman had discussions with his boss, Marcel Smits ("Smits") (then the Chief Financial Officer) about the possibility of a Sara Lee merger resulting in the elimination of Hoffman's job. The parties disagree on whether Smits actually asked Hoffman to leave or whether Smits was just apprising Hoffman of the possibilities so Hoffman could look out for his own interests. Which version is correct is central to this case because only those key employees who are asked to leave Sara Lee are eligible for severance under the Plan.

The parties agree that on July 15, 2010, Smits, in an employee evaluation of Hoffman, wrote "Aaron and myself have talked about it at some point in time being in Aaron's best interest to pursue a career move outside Sara Lee. Aaron would do wisely if in FY 2011 he works toward positioning himself in such a way that he is likely to attract a good outside offer."

The parties disagree over Plaintiff's contention that, on July 15, 2010, Smits explicitly, orally told Hoffman he would have to leave in fiscal year 2011 (July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011) and that Smits assured Hoffman he would receive severance when he did so. The parties also disagree on the tenor and contents of discussions between Smits and Hoffman on November 10, 2010 when Hoffman announced his impending departure: Plaintiff contends Smits admitted telling him to leave; Defendants contend Plaintiff asked to be fired so he wouldn't have to leave his severance behind, and that they actually asked him to stay on.

Hoffman left Sara Lee November 30, 2010 and applied for severance December 28, 2010. He was denied severance on January 25, 2011 in a letter signed by Sara Lee's Vice President of Human Resources, Lena Koldras ("Koldras"). Hoffman appealed to the Plan's Appeals Committee ("the Committee") on February 10, 2011, and received a final denial letter dated April 19, 2011. Hoffman filed this suit June 8, 2011, and on October 3, 2011, this Court dismissed an estoppel count, leaving only one count for violation of Section 502 of ERISA.

On December 14, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Conduct Discovery, alleging the Plan has an inherent structural conflict of interest as well as two additional, specific problems with the Defendants' ERISA claims processes.

Plaintiff points out that the Plan Administrator both decides claim eligibilities under the Plan and is the payor of benefits (the "structural" conflict of interest).

He also claims specific bias in that Sara Lee's Human Resources Vice President Lena Koldras granted severance pay to a similarly situated individual working in Human Resources, Brad Patrick ("Patrick") - the implication being that the Human Resources Department improperly favors its own employees. (Koldras' written testimony to the Committee, conversely, factually distinguished Patrick's situation from the Plaintiff's and gave an example of another executive who had been denied benefits because he or she initiated departure.)

Finally, Plaintiff also alleges procedural unfairness in Defendants' appeals process, contending it was improper for Koldras to act as both the initial adjudicator of benefits and then as chief fact-finder for the Committee. Defendants contend the Committee considered other testimony and Koldras was not part of the Committee's decision.

Plaintiff seeks depositions of Koldras, Patrick (the similarly situated employee) and an as-yet unnamed member of the Committee, as well as documents and ...


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