BP Retirees Prevail in Federal Court

Federal Judge Rules BP Violated Federal Erisa Laws

North Slope Alaskan Pipeline Retirees Win Against Big Oil on Behalf of All Sohio Workers; Second Phase to Determine Remedy

(HOUSTON, March 29, 2024) – A group of Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) oil workers received a winning decision late yesterday after an eight-year legal battle with BP Corporation North America, Inc. (BP), in a huge victory for oil workers, with a federal judge ruling that BP “committed fraud or similarly inequitable conduct” in how it announced a pension formula change more than 30 years ago. The case has been closely watched in legal circles because it applied unique facts to an area of pension case law that has been developing for decades and could affect the rights of other retirees. 

Federal judge George C. Hanks, Jr., ruled that BP violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 and plaintiffs are entitled to appropriate redress by “equitable relief.” The Court ruled plaintiffs demonstrated BP committed multiple violations of ERISA in its communications to its employees.

Sohio retirees led by Fredric “Fritz” A. Guenther, Walton Fujimoto, and Les Owen filed their case in 2016 in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas in Houston, alleging they did not receive the amount of pension benefits promised by BP after the company changed its pension formula in 1989. The ruling has the potential to affect an estimated class of up to 7,000 or more employees.

The Sohio retirees maintained, since 1989, BP had insisted the new formula would provide benefits as good as or better than the old formula. The Judge agreed and found there is a pension shortfall for many. 

Plaintiffs asserted the decreased pension benefits meant they would have had to work as much as a decade longer in order to retire with the benefits BP promised.

Following a 14-day trial at the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, in June and July 2023, Judge George C. Hanks, Jr. agreed with plaintiffs’ attorneys. The Court requested additional briefing regarding the equitable relief that will redress BP’s ERISA violations.

“We are thrilled with the outcome,” said Susan Weeks, a plaintiffs’ attorney with Pacific Northwest law firm James, Vernon & Weeks, P.A.  “We look forward to the next phase to bring justice to as many retirees as possible,” noting the next phase is in May.

Leander James, Weeks’ partner, agreed.

“This is an enormous win,” James said. “We are grateful to our class representatives who endured years of litigation. It is an honor to represent them. We thank all those who encouraged us.” 

Plaintiffs’ attorneys see potential far-reaching implications of this case.

“This is the right ruling on the law. It’s well-reasoned and correctly applies decades of case law related to protecting workers and their benefits,” said Rossi Maddalena of Merrick Hofstedt & Lindsey, PS in Seattle. “We are prepared to preserve this decision in the appellate courts, as necessary.” 

Peter Steilberg, also a member of Merrick Hofstedt & Lindsey, PS., said, “This ruling will protect retirees and encourage employers to communicate accurately about retirement benefits.” 

Fritz Guenther, lead plaintiff, dedicated his work life to BP often in dangerous conditions on the North Slope of Alaska. He worked two weeks on, two weeks off for years relying on BP’s representations regarding his retirement. While he is still healthy, he says many of his colleagues face health issues, while others still have died within the past eight years. The retirees’ legal fight is taking place against a backdrop of a retirement wave nationwide, with the U.S. Census Bureau estimating that one in five Americans will reach the age 65 or older by 2030.

While it is tragic that retirees who died will never enjoy retirement benefits awarded from this decision, plaintiffs’ attorneys are hopeful heirs will have a claim for the benefits, James explained. “This case has always been about a company honoring its retirement agreement with workers who dedicated parts of their lives to the company,” added Philip Meade, another attorney at Merrick, Hofstedt & Lindsey, P.S.

Following the ruling, Guenther took a moment to reflect on the past eight years of a legal fight that started with a handful of employees and grew to thousands. 

“It weighed heavily on me, as it has on a lot of others,” Guenther said. “It was a major life change to discover your pension is half what you were promised and worked for over your career.

“This is a good first step in correcting a wrong. For my colleagues who have died, we hope they can still receive justice in the form of their families recovering the retirement benefits they deserve.” ###

Case information: # 4:16-cv-00995, Fredric A. “Fritz” Guenther et al v. BP Retirement Accumulation


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Plaintiffs’ attorneys:

Peter Steilberg III, is a Seattle litigator and senior trial attorney at Merrick, Hofstedt & Lindsey, P.S.  Mr. Steilberg’s practice concentrates on professional malpractice matters, product liability, personal injury, commercial litigation, and contract law. 

Leander James has a nationwide practice focused on justice for individuals against corporate and other large entities. James has helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts on behalf of plaintiffs and injured parties. James is a founding shareholder of James Vernon and Weeks, P.A., with offices in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and New York. 

Susan P. Weeks is a veteran appellate attorney and business attorney. Weeks is a founding shareholder of James Vernon & Weeks, P.A. She has extensive experience in business law, corporate law, municipal law, and all facets of civil litigation. Ms. Weeks serves as corporate counsel for numerous businesses in their general legal matters and municipal counsel for several governmental bodies. 

Philip R. Meade has practiced law since 1984, including cases involving business disputes and consumer protection claims, and claims of personal injury, professional liability, and product liability. Before receiving his law degree, he worked as a Certified Public Accountant. 

Rossi Maddalena is the managing partner of Merrick, Hofstedt & Lindsey, P.S., located in Seattle, Washington.  Mr. Maddalena has a diverse litigation practice representing people and businesses. His practice focuses on personal injury claims, breach of contract actions, breach of lease claims, and other business litigation matters.