At the Intersection of the NFL Draft, ERISA, Divorce, Venue and Spousal Benefits

Is there a more hyped sporting event with less substance than the NFL Draft? Does everyone on the internet drive traffic to their sites by linking to the draft if at all possible? Well, of course the answer to both questions is yes, and so I too will link a post to the NFL Draft.

How am I going to do that? By taking advantage of the fact that Judge Woodlock, in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, just issued an order on venue and QDROs in ERISA litigation that is not only must reading as a tutorial on a number of ERISA issues, but that also concerns benefits due to a deceased former professional football player’s ex-wife under the NFL’s player retirement plan.

The ruling addresses in detail a number of issues that are dear to my heart, both because they come up so frequently and also because they present subtly complicated issues. First, he discusses in detail the standards governing proper venue of a claim for benefits under ERISA, and in particular the statutory language allowing venue to lie in any district where a plan can be found. In the view of plaintiffs’ lawyers, that allows venue to exist anywhere in the country that the plan administrator or the plan itself might be subject to jurisdiction under a minimum contacts test, while defense lawyers typically assert it must have a more limited effect. Judge Woodlock provides a detailed analysis of the issue, before adopting – as has consistently been done in this District but not always in others – a broad interpretation of the scope of venue under that provision. He then also provides a detailed analysis of the question of when venue should be transferred in such a case, giving great weight to the plaintiff’s choice of venue, even when the only real reason for picking that venue may have been that plaintiff’s counsel – and not the plaintiff or the defendant – is sited there. I would highly recommend the opinion for a tutorial on these issues.

But then he addresses one of the oddest issues, I think, in ERISA litigation over pensions, which is the post-hoc creation of QDROs by probate court judges. In that fact pattern, after the plan participant’s death, a probate court judge goes back to a prior divorce proceeding and enters an order retroactively granting the former spouse of the deceased participant the right to pension benefits, with the order backdated to a time when the participant was still alive and the divorce proceedings were ongoing. You would think this is a bizarre fact pattern, right? Something you would only see on a law school exam. That’s what I thought too, the first time I saw it happen years ago. But as this opinion discusses, this happens all the time, or at least often enough to have generated a substantial body of case law. The Court does an excellent job of surveying that case law in its opinion. If this issue appears in your practice sometime in the future, dear reader, and you haven’t seen it before, you should start by reading this opinion.
 

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