The Seventh Amendment to the Bill of Rights states: "In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law." On many occasions claimants bringing suit under ERISA for recovery of denied benefits have argued that they are entitled to a jury trial. Courts before 2002 almost uniformly ruled that claimants were not entitled to jury trials because their claims were "equitable" under English common law rather than "legal."
However, that clarity disappeared with the recent Supreme Court rulings in Great West v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204 (2002) and Sereboff v. MAMSI, 126 S.Ct. 1869 (2006). In those cases the Court made it quite clear that claims by participants and beneficiaries under ERISA seeking to recover money based on violation of the terms of an ERISA plan are legal rather than equitable in nature.
Since then, a number of federal district courts have either allowed jury trials for wrongful benefit denials or breach of fiduciary duty claims under ERISA or acknowledged that such a right may exist. For example, in Bona v. Barasch, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4186, 174 L.R.R.M. 2051 (S.D.N.Y. 2003), Judge Michael Mukasey ruled that where a group of plan participants requested it, the Seventh Amendment required a jury trial involving claims brought under 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1132(a)(2) to recover losses to an ERISA plan caused by breach of fiduciary duty.
In evaluating whether the right to a jury trial exists in a particular case, the court "must examine both the nature of the issues involved and the remedy sought." Granfinanciera, S.A., v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33, 42 (1989). The second question is more important than the first. Id. Taken together, this recent Supreme Court precedent strongly suggests that any party who requests a jury trial in a claim for benefits or losses to a benefit plan under ERISA is entitled to have a jury hear and decide their claims.
Whether a party to an ERISA case wants a jury or a judge to hear and decide factual issues depends on the circumstances of the case. But generally, I think a jury trial is more likely to be attractive to claimants than defendants. Perhaps we'll see more jury requests from ERISA claimants in the future.