Feb 17, 2019
When Congress enacted ERISA it included specific direction about where a case could be filed and how and where a defendant could be served with process, i.e., given effective notice of suit that compels that defendant to either respond or have a default entered against them. Since ERISA is a statute designed to ensure uniform administration of pension and welfare benefit plans across the country, Congress provided quite a bit of flexibility for both venue, where the case could be filed, and service of process. 29 U.S.C. §1132(e)(2) states that a case can be filed in the district where the plan is administered, where the alleged breach of the plan or ERISA took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found. It goes on to say that service of process can take place where a defendant resides or may be found.
Many of the terms in §1132(e)(2) have legally specific and fairly technical meanings. Their practical effect shows up in a case we handled a few years ago, Peay v. BellSouth Medical Assistance Plan, 205 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2000), that you can read here in the library section of this website.
In Peay we represented two healthcare providers located in Utah and a patient residing in Tennessee. The two corporate defendants resided in Georgia and Alabama, respectively. We sued for unpaid medical expenses in Utah. The defendants argued that they did not have sufficient contacts to Utah to allow suit to go forward here and asked for dismissal of the case or that it be transferred to Georgia. The trial court agreed with BellSouth. We appealed. The Tenth Circuit reversed the trial court and allowed the case to go forward in Utah. To see the ins and outs of how the court interpreted ERISA’s venue, service of process and personal jurisdiction concepts, you’ll have to read the decision. I’d say it's pretty fascinating stuff but that would direct laughter, scorn and ridicule my way.
The short version is that you can sue ERISA defendants, especially corporate defendants, just about anywhere in the U.S. of A. Only if the location a plaintiff chooses to sue would "make litigation so gravely difficult and inconvenient that . . . [the defendant] unfairly is at a severe disadvantage in comparison to his opponent" will the case be dismissed. That’s a tough burden for defendants to carry off.
For a different take on ERISA’s venue, service of process and personal jurisdiction principles, see Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in Board of Trustees v. Elite Erectors, Inc., 212 F.3d 1031 (7th Cir. 2000). It’s an even more expansive view of ERISA’s venue provision than Peay. Regardless of the topic, Easterbrook is an entertaining read.
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