Consol Energy Inc. allegedly broke federal law when it ended health care coverage for more than 900 retired coal miners and their dependents in West Virginia and Virginia, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, claims the Cecil-based energy company misled employees by promising them a lifetime of benefits to dissuade them from joining unions and to accept lower wages and to retire earlier than they might have.
In a written statement, Consol Energy promised to fight the allegations but declined to comment on the pending litigation. “We will vigorously contend class certification and defend the lawsuit,” Brian Aiello, Consol’s spokesman, said in an email.
Emmett Casey Jr. and Connie Z. Gilbert, both employees at the Buchanan Mine and nearby facilities in southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia, claim the move violates the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which sets standards for retirement plans in the private sector.
Through printed materials, slide shows and oral presentations, the company mounted a “fraudulent concealment of the terms of the retiree plan” through “regular, repeated, and material misrepresentations about the lifetime nature of benefits,” according to the lawsuit.
It is at least the second legal challenge filed in the last year against over reductions or terminations Consol made to retiree health care in 2014 and 2015.
In October 2016, two retirees filed a similar suit on behalf of at least 2,000 nonunion retirees at Fola Coal operation in central West Virginia, which Consol sold earlier that year.
Meanwhile, union workers are pressuring the company to keep benefits at the same levels.
Last year, the United Mine Workers of America filed a grievance after the company, according to the union, moved away from providing full health care benefits through a health insurer to Medicare-eligible retirees. The move, the union argued, was in violation of a contract collectively bargained in 2011.
In March, a federal judge halted Consol from making the changes until the grievance is settled.
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.