CHICAGO — A federal judge has kicked a wage dispute class action between a retired bank executive and BMO Harris Bank back to Cook County court, saying the executive's claim he had been shorted retirement benefits as owed under federal law did not legally eclipse his state law claims that the bank had misclassified him as an independent contractor while he worked for BMO post-retirement.

On July 31, U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso remanded to Cook County Circuit Court the lawsuit brought by plaintiff Byron Behrens, a former vice president of the bank's "probate division/estate administration." Behrens alleges BMO Harris mischaracterized his post-retirement employment with the bank as an independent contractor, causing lost compensation and employee benefits under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act and the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Behrens had also sought to expand the lawsuit to include a class of additional former bank employees he asserted may have been similarly misclassified as independent contractors.

Though Behrens argued that the defendant's actions allegedly violated state laws, BMO argued that the dispute fell under federal jurisdiction because his ERISA claims superseded his state law claims.

BMO removed the case to federal court, claiming that Behrens was seeking damages based on amounts that should have been paid under two retirement benefit plans governed by ERISA and the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA).

“BMO argues that this court has jurisdiction and its removal of this case was proper because ERISA completely preempts [the] plaintiff’s claims, and [the] plaintiff’s state law claims raise a federal question because he seeks FICA contributions under the Internal Revenue Code,”  Alonso wrote in the court's decision.

Alonso, however, disagreed with the company's position, holding that ERISA did not preempt Behrens' allegations of state law violations and the company's FICA argument did not warrant federal jurisdiction. Alonso cited Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila in formulating his opinion.

“The legal duties implicated by [the] plaintiff’s state-law claims are independent of ERISA,” Alonso wrote in the decision. “... ERISA does not completely pre-empt [the] plaintiff’s state-law claims... [and the] FICA issue in this case does not provide this court with federal question jurisdiction..."

Behrens is represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Henry J. Jostock P.C. , of Chicago.

BMO Harris is represented by the firm of McGuireWoods LLP, of Chicago. 

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Organizations in this Story

Cook County Circuit Court
50 W Washington St
Chicago, IL - 60602

McGuireWoods LLP
77 W Wacker Dr
Chicago, IL - 60601

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
219 S Dearborn St
Chicago, IL - 60604

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