Wal-Mart Wins Case on Health Care Costs
Byline: Jen Haberkorn, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A federal judge yesterday overturned a Maryland law that required Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll costs on health care for its employees.
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled that the law violates the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a federal law that sets minimum standards for pensions and health plans. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down similar state laws that conflict with the federal law, ruling that ERISA pre-empts any state law related to employee benefit plans.
Kevin Enright, a spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, told the Associated Press the state would appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. He argued that the law is not pre-empted by ERISA because employers can choose to pay the health care fees in the form of a tax.
Yesterday's ruling was the third time this month that the Maryland General Assembly has been rebuffed.
Moody's Investors Service lowered Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s rating last week to nearly junk status, making it more difficult for the utility to borrow money as the General Assembly forces it to finance higher energy costs instead of passing along rising prices to consumers.
In addition, an appeals court judge blocked the legislature's attempt to fire the entire Public Service Commission.
Moody's called the mass firings "a highly unusual event in the modern history of the U.S. regulated utility industry."
Judge Motz said in his opinion yesterday that the state's health care law, which would go into effect Jan. 1, would hurt Wal-Mart.
"[T]he Act imposes legally cognizable injury upon Wal-Mart by requiring it to make a report to the secretary about the amount of its payroll and health care contributions," and tracking Maryland costs separately from the rest of the country, the judge wrote.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), the trade group that challenged the law, also argued that the law violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution because it targeted only Wal-Mart, but the judge ruled against RILA on this point.
Though Judge Motz said many times in his opinion that Wal-Mart was obviously targeted in the law, he said the court cannot rule on the motivations of the General Assembly and that the Supreme Court has applied the clause only to politically vulnerable groups, such as women and minorities.
The law, dubbed "the Wal-Mart health care bill" when voted on in the General Assembly, was aimed at Wal-Mart. Only four companies in the state met the first threshold of having more than 10,000 employees. Giant Food Inc., already paid more than 8 percent to employees, Johns Hopkins University only had to meet a 6 percent threshold as a nonprofit, and Northrop Grumman Corp., lobbied for and won exclusion for companies with employees earning more than the Maryland median household income.
Wal-Mart did not return calls for comment yesterday. …