SPD Clause Not For Forum Selection

February 4, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com)— The US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a disability plan administrator did not waive its right to move a plan participant's legal action from state to federal court by stating in a summary plan description (SPD) that a suit could be filed in either state or federal court.

>In the case Cruthis v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the appeals court found that although the SPD stated that when plan participants have a benefits claim denied or ignored, they have the right to “file suit in a state or federal court,” it still allows for the plan administrator to move the case to federal court if filed in state court.   This is because the language used in the SPD is simply a recitation of language required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), rather than a forum selection clause for participants, said the appeals court in reversing the lower federal court’s decision.

>Plan participant Shannon Cruthis sued MetLife, her insurer, for ERISA violations after she became disabled in 2001 and MetLife refused her disability benefits.   Her suit was filed in Illinois state court but was moved by MetLife to the US District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.   Cruthis then filed a motion to remand the case to state court, and argued that, because the SPD stated that participants could file their lawsuits in either state or federal court, MetLife had given up its right to remove the case to federal court.

>The district court decided that the SPD clause was in fact a forum selection clause and sent the case to state court since Cruthis had filed there.

>However, the appeals court disagreed and said that the statement was merely following compliance regulations by informing Cruthis of her rights under ERISA to initiate a suit in either venue.     The court also noted that the language was taken verbatim from a model statement provided by the government, and that the way it was worded was not to eliminate the right of removal for plan administrators..  

>The appeals court also stated that four other federal courts have previously ruled that the phrase “you may file suit in a state or federal court” is a statutorily required disclosure of an employee’s ERISA rights rather than a forum selection clause.