Q: Where Can You Sue an ERISA Plan? A: Where the Plan Sponsor Says

So the Sixth Circuit, in Smith v. Aegon, just ruled in favor of the enforceability of forum selection clauses in ERISA governed plans. Combined with the Supreme Court’s approval in Heimeshoff of contractual limitations in ERISA plans on the time period for filing suit, the approach of Smith basically hands control of the basic procedural aspects of litigating ERISA cases – when and where – to plan sponsors. In Smith, the Sixth Circuit provides a legitimate rationale for doing so, which is that the law already provides extensive freedom to plan sponsors with regard to whether, and if so under what terms, to offer benefit plans. This principle, incidentally, flows naturally from the original grand bargain that gave rise to ERISA itself, which was the premise that employers would be granted much leeway and limited potential liability to encourage them to make benefit plans available to employees.

That said, however, the dissent in Smith makes an important point, which is that the venue provisions of ERISA have long been construed by federal courts in the manner that will best allow participants to protect their rights, and not in a manner that will make it more difficult for them to do so. The dissent’s point in this regard is well taken. ERISA expressly provides that a plan participant can sue in any federal district court where the plan is administered, the breach took place, the defendant resides or the defendant may be found. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). Federal judges regularly find that this venue provision was intended by Congress to expand, rather than constrict, a participant’s choice of forum, so as to best protect plan participants. As one judge explained in a well-regarded opinion on the subject, Congress intended “to remove jurisdictional procedural obstacles which in the past appear to have hampered effective enforcement of fiduciary responsibilities under state law for recovery of benefits due to participants” and as a result, “ERISA venue provisions should be interpreted so as to give beneficiaries a wide choice of venue.” Cole v. Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Health and Welfare Fund, 225 F.Supp.2d 96, 98 (D.Mass. 2002) (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 93–533, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 4639, 4655; accord S.Rep. No. 93–127, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 4838, 4871).

Decisions such as Smith run to the opposite of this thinking and essentially say that, while that may be the case, a plan sponsor can opt out of that system of protections in favor of selecting a forum in the first instance, and naming it in the plan.