Judge OKs Class Action Pension Suit against Soda Ash Producer

April 9, 2008

A federal judge has authorized a class-action lawsuit against a Wyoming soda ash company over alleged cuts in workers’ pension benefits.

U.S. Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne in February authorized the class-action lawsuit against Solvay Chemicals, Inc., one of southwest Wyoming’s leading soda ash producers. He ruled that the lawsuit can move forward under federal age discrimination laws.

Richard Honaker, lawyer for the class-action members, said he hopes all the company’s employees in Wyoming and elsewhere who were affected by changes in the company’s pension plan will join the lawsuit.

“We are pleased that Judge Johnson has given the green light for this case to proceed,” Honaker said in statement.

“We now move on to the next challenge, which is to be sure that all the employees harmed by Solvay’s pension policies are included in the class-action suit and receive increased retirement benefits,” he said. “This is a very important matter.”

The class-action lawsuit seeks to recover what the plaintiffs claim are lost pension benefits and to obtain damages for what it calls Solvay’s “willful violation” of age discrimination laws.

The lawsuit’s lead plaintiffs are Wade Jensen and Donald Goff. Jensen is a 15-year surface plant operator while Goff worked at the plant for 23 years before being discharged in 2005. The two charge that their retirement benefits were cut because of their age. They say the company’s actions violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

The lawsuit alleges that the company’s pension plan had offered benefits for years calculated on a formula based on an employee’s pay and years of service. The complaint says that when the company changed to “cash balance” pension plan, the initial balances did not reflect the value of the plan under the previous system.

Houston lawyer Richard Hammett represents Solvay. He said in a telephone phone interview that the company “understands that the pension plan change remains an important issue” for a number of employees.

“They very much respect the legal process and the right of employees to invoke the legal process, and that’s what’s going on here,” he said.

Hammett said that in past similar lawsuits, “the courts that dealt with this question have ruled in favor of the (pension) plan changes.”

Solvay’s trona mine and soda ash plant is the fifth largest employer in Sweetwater County. The company employs 415 workers at its soda ash facility, located about 20 miles west of Green River. The company recently expanded its production capacity to about 1.8 million tons of soda ash per year.

Solvay Chemicals is a member of the Solvay Group, a group of chemical companies headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. The group employs more than 30,000 people in 50 countries.

Honaker said Solvay employees at the Green River mine and plant are among the Solvay Group employees most affected by the pension changes.

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