Retired nonunion miners seeking class action lawsuit against CONSOL
By Charles Boothe For The Register-Herald
Nov 3, 2016
BLUEFIELD — Papers have been filed in federal court in West Virginia seeking a class action lawsuit on behalf of about 2,000 nonunion retired miners who say CONSOL Energy Corp. wrongfully ended their health benefits.
Mountain State Justice, a non-profit law firm based in Charleston, filed the papers on Oct. 17.
Sam Petsonk, an attorney with the firm, said lifetime benefit plans were withheld or terminated by the company at the end of 2015.
“What we are arguing is … the company promised to provide the benefits,” he said. “They made a promise … we have brought this class action lawsuit to enforce that promise to pay health care benefit to those retirees.”
Petsonk said the promise was verbal, but the miners declined to belong to a union because of that promise of benefits.
“They accepted the company’s verbal promises,” he said. “We are seeking for the company to restore those benefits after terminating them, to reestablish the insurance pool for these miners who were left out of it.”
The suit seeks remedies under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which include restoring the full $2,500 per year per retiree in health spending accounts which they believe they are due under the terms of their collectively bargained retirement benefits plan.
Petsonk said although the promise was verbal, enforcing it does fall under the federal ERISA.
According to a report filed on the Bloomberg business news website, court papers allege that key information about the company’s lifetime health benefits were withheld from the miners, who rejected unionization in exchange for certain company concessions, until after they became eligible for retirement.
The nonunion employees who accepted lower wages on the promise of lifetime benefits say they were not told of a clause allowing the company to terminate their health benefits at any time, the report said.
“They believe the company is acting illegally and seek to prevent CONSOL from terminating or withholding these benefits or discriminating against the retired miners on the basis of their health status,” according to the report.
The miners also complain in the suit that they were not offered the same lump-sum payments given to other employees when the company terminated their health benefits.
CONSOL does not comment on pending legal action.
CONSOL Energy, a publicly owned Pittsburgh-based producer of natural gas and coal, has been selling coal mining operations in the region in recent years.
In February, the Buchanan Mine in Buchanan County, Va., was sold to a Connecticut company for $420 million.
The company has turned its attention more toward natural gas, according to various reports.