Seventh Circuit: Terminated Employee’s Release Agreement Bars Pension Claim, ERISA’s Anti-Alienation Provision Does Not Apply

The Seventh Circuit dismissed a former employee’s claim for additional pension benefits after concluding that a release agreement he signed had waived any claims that arose prior to the signing of the release and his claim was not protected by ERISA’s anti-alienation provision. Hakim v. Accenture United States Pension Plan, No. 11-3438, 2013 WL 2249454 (7th Cir. May 23, 2013) (unpublished). The plaintiff, Omar Hakim, sought additional pension benefits based on alleged inadequate notice of a pension plan amendment affecting his benefit eligibility. The Seventh Circuit held that pension claims, unlike pension entitlements, are outside the realm of ERISA’s anti-alienation provision and therefore can be released. The Court reasoned that pension entitlements are vested benefits to which a participant is entitled, while contested pension claims seek “additional benefits above and beyond the benefits to which he was entitled under the terms of the plan.” The Court also held that Hakim’s claim was time barred because he had actual or constructive notice of his claim when he signed the release and the latest he could have claimed to be unaware of his changed status was when he received his Statement of Individual Benefits in 2000.