Equitable Relief Under ERISA in the First Circuit Post-Sereboff

The district courts in the First Circuit have been so busy issuing ERISA related decisions recently that it has become difficult to find time to post on other things that I also want to talk about. That said, however, the District Court for the District of Maine just issued a remarkable opinion that I both wanted to comment on and to be sure to spotlight. The case is Curran v. Camden National Bank, and it involved the question of whether the defendant bank owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a multi-employer health care trust upon its withdrawal from the group. There are a few things that are really note worthy about the ruling. First of all, the decision is a nicely crafted survey of the law in this circuit as it currently stands on a number of topics, in particular: the extent to which, after Sereboff, equitable relief is available under ERISA in this circuit; the proper analysis of preemption; and the determination of fiduciary status for purposes of a claim for breach of fiduciary duty.

One could pick the court’s analysis of any of these three issues to focus on, and have plenty to write about, but today I will comment in particular on the court’s discussion of the viability of claims for equitable relief in this circuit after Sereboff, particularly since the court points out that the First Circuit itself has not yet found reason to interpret and apply Sereboff, other than to cite the case for the proposition that “what forms of relief are considered equitable is a matter in dispute.” On this issue, the district court began by providing a handy blueprint for analyzing claims for equitable relief in this circuit, and whether they can proceed without running afoul of Supreme Court precedent. Addressing “29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), which provides [that a] civil action may be brought by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary (A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (I) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan,” the court stated:

 

By its terms, however, section 1132(a)(3) authorizes only "those categories of relief that were typically available in equity." Sereboff v. Mid Atl. Med. Servs., U.S. , 126 S. Ct. 1869 (2006) (quoting Mertens v. Hewitt Associates, 508 U.S. 248, 256 (1993) (emphasis in original)). If the plaintiffs seek legal as opposed to equitable relief, "their suit is not authorized by § [1132(a)(3)]." Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 218 (2002).

The First Circuit has set forth a two-step inquiry to evaluate a cause of action under § 1132(a)(3): "1) is the proposed relief equitable, and 2) if so, is it appropriate?" LaRocca v. Borden, Inc., 276 F.3d 22, 27-28 (1st Cir. 2002). With respect to the first prong, under ERISA, "'equitable relief' includes 'those categories of relief that were typically available in equity (such as injunction, mandamus, and restitution, but not compensatory damages).'" Id. at 28 (quoting Mertens, 508 U.S. at 256). Turning to the second step, the purpose of § 1132(a)(3) is to serve as a "safety net, offering appropriate equitable relief for injuries caused by violations that § [1132] does not elsewhere adequately remedy." Id. (quoting Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 512 (1996)).

This is a very handy formulation that one can borrow to begin the section of any brief submitted in this circuit arguing over whether or not a particular claim can proceed under this section of ERISA. The court then went on, however, to provide far more analysis and guidance on this issue, explaining how a proper analysis of Sereboff and subsequent history from other circuits established that the plaintiffs were seeking a legal remedy dressed in the clothing of equitable relief, and that the claim therefore could not proceed under this statutory section.

Second of all, the bank’s lawyers did a terrific job here, drawing the court across a diverse range of ERISA issues and convincing the court that none of the plaintiffs’ claims were viable in light of the statute and case law interpreting it. I tip my hat to the bank’s lawyers for a terrific win.