CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ Former Food Lion workers failed to show in a decade-long lawsuit that the North Carolina-based grocery chain forced them out of their jobs to deny them retirement and health benefits, a federal judge says.

Rickey Bryant, his wife and children, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union sued two years after Bryant was fired in March 1988 from his job as an assistant manager at a Columbia store. He was closing in on being vested and entitled to benefits such as insurance, retirement and profit sharing.

Ten other former Food Lion workers and their families joined Bryant's lawsuit, charging that they lost their insurance coverage when they also were fired.

Seven of those claims were settled, leaving Bryant, Stephen Bannister and Scottie Philbeck, who worked at stores in North Carolina and South Carolina, to pursue the case that finally went to trial three years ago.

Food Lion said it fired Bryant for failing to follow a supervisor's instructions and the South Carolina Employment Security Commission upheld his dismissal.

U.S. District Judge Falcon Hawkins said Bryant ``failed to prove his termination was the result of Food Lion's specific intent to deprive him of his profit sharing.''

One of the issues was the way the Salisbury, N.C.-based chain changed the length of time before an employee became fully vested. Before 1988, Food Lion employees had to work 15 years before being fully vested. A change in federal law that year forced the company to shorten that.

Hawkins saw no merit in arguments that Food Lion's choice of a five-year schedule was discriminatory.

``It is unreasonable to believe that Food Lion's intent in adopting the five-year rule was to get rid of employees and not to encourage employees to stay with the company for a long time,'' Hawkins wrote.

``We're pleased and gratified that the judge agreed with us that the plaintiffs had no case,'' said Tawn Earnest, a Food Lion spokeswoman.

The company has said the suit was a pressure tactic to get it to recognize the union.

Bryant said he was shocked. ``It's quite a stumbling block. You tell the truth and you get slapped,'' he said.

Lawyers for the former workers said they had not decided whether to appeal.