:: No Jury Trial In ERISA Claims For Benefit Case

. . . plaintiff relies on Great-West & Annuity Insurance Company v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 122 S. Ct. 708, 151 L. Ed. 2d 635 (2002), to attempt to circumvent the well-established rule that a jury trial is not available for an ERISA claim. In Great West, an insurer attempted to file a subrogation action against its beneficiaries under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). The Supreme Court held that the specific type of restitution requested by the insurance company was based purely on contract, and therefore the nature of the relief sought was legal. Since the insurer was seeking a legal remedy, the Supreme Court held that ERISA did not provide the insurer a cause of action. Id. at 221.

Graham v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87743 (N.D. Okla. Oct. 29, 2008)

As noted by the district court in Graham, “there was no issue in Great West as to whether 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B)  authorizes a jury trial in an ERISA case.”  Nonetheless, the Court’s decision in that case that the relief sought by the plan (a plan /subrogation/reimbursement case) was legal, not equitable, has rekindled an old debate.

Most readers are aware that the federal courts long ago settled that ERISA 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) claims for benefits were equitable in nature.

“Equitable” is a word that bears more than its share of freight in legal matters.  In this instance, the word is shorthand for centuries of legal history that culminates in the practical conclusion that the plaintiff gets no jury trial.

The Knudson case stirred the settled waters by interjecting the equitable/legal dichotomy into the question of a plan’s rights as against plan beneficiaries under ERISA 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) were cognizable.  The statute required that the plan’s (a)(3) claims fall within the classification of “other appropriate equitable relief”.  In Knudson, the claims asserted by the plan were viewed as legal, and the plan’s case was dismissed.

That outcome sparked interest.  Here’s the idea:

Claims at law, or “legal” remedies, typically go to a jury.  It’s a Seventh Amendment right.   So, some have surmised, if the claims in Knudson were deemed legal, perhaps it’s time to revisit the old view that jury trials are unavailable in ERISA cases.

Not so, ruled in the district court in Graham.

There was no issue in Great West as to whether 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B)  authorizes a jury trial in an ERISA case.

Tenth Circuit precedent does not support plaintiff’s request for a jury trial, and other circuit courts that have considered the issue have found that § 1132(a)(1)(B) does not provide a plaintiff the right to a jury trial. Adams, 149 F.3d 1156; Sullivan v. LTV Aerospace & Defense Co., 82 F.3d 1251, 1257-59 (2d Cir. 1996); Cox v. Keystone Carbon Co., 861 F.2d 390, 394 (3d Cir. 1988); Berry v. Ciba-Geigy Corp., 761 F.2d 1003, 1007 (4th Cir. 1985); In re Vorpahl, 695 F.2d 318, 320-21 (6th Cir. 1982); Calamia v. Spivey, 632 F.2d 1235, 1237 (5th Cir. 1980); Wardle v. Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension, 627 F.2d 820, 829 (7th Cir. 1980). Great West does not change this result, as that decision concerned the insurance company’s right to bring a subrogation claim for relief under a contract theory, not the statutory relief sought by an individual beneficiary under an ERISA plan. The relief plaintiff seeks is equitable in nature and plaintiff has no Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial on her ERISA claim.

Note: The issue remains one that should be monitored by plaintiff and defense counsel alike.  Here is an excerpt from a court decision in accord with Graham:

This court finds thatGreat West has not changed the law in this District regarding jury trials in ERISA actions. See, e.g., DePace v. Matsushita Elec. Corp. of America, 257 F. Supp. 2d 543, 574 (E.D.N.Y. 2003). DePace reiterated, post-Great West, that “no jury trial right attaches” in ERISA cases because “‘cases involving ERISA benefits are inherently equitable in nature, not contractual.’” Id. (quoting DeFelice, 112 F.3d 61, 64 (2d Cir. 1997)); see also Muller, 341 F.3d at 124 (applying Sullivan post-Great West); Couture v. UNUM Provident Corp., 315 F. Supp. 2d 418, 426-27 (same); but compare Bona v. Barasch, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4186 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2003) (finding right to jury trial in ERISA claims for legal relief, including claims for damages under § 502(a)(2) of ERISA).

Allison v. UNUM Life Ins. Co., 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3465 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 11, 2005)

But seeChao v. Meixner, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51317 (N.D. Ga. July 3, 2008) regarding (a)(2):

. . .there is a substantial difference of opinion between the federal courts as to whether litigants are entitled to a jury trial for violations of Section 502(a)(2) of ERISA. Earlier cases consistently held that the remedies available pursuant to Section 502(a)(2) were traditionally equitable in nature and thus not entitled to trial by jury. E.g., Broadnax Mills, Inc. v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Va., 876 F. Supp. 809, 817 (E.D. Va. 1995) (collecting cases); Spano v. Boeing Co., No. 06-cv-743-DRH, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28774, 2007 WL 1149192, at *7-8 (S.D. Ill. April 18, 2007) (collecting cases); Abbott v. Lockheed Martin Corp., No. 06-cv-0701-MJR, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58920, 2007 WL 2316481 (S.D. Ill. Aug. 13, 2007). Recently, some courts have held that ERISA breach of fiduciary duty claims seeking monetary relief, like Section 502(a)(2), are legal in nature. E.g., Bona v. Barasch, No. 01 Civ. 2289 (MBM), 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4186, 2003 WL 1395932, at *33-35 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2003); Lamberty v. Premier Millwork & Lumber Co., Inc., 329 F. Supp. 2d 737, 744-45 (E.D. Va. 2004). The Eleventh Circuit has not ruled on the issue. 1 Thus, a substantial ground for difference of opinion exists in this case