Forum-Selection Clauses Won’t Get High Court Review

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By Jacklyn Wille

Can an employer force lawsuits over workers’ benefits into the employer’s preferred court? The U.S. Supreme Court refused to say, for the second time in a year ( Clause v. U.S. Dist. Court for E. Dist. of Mo., U.S., No. 16-641, certiorari denied 1/17/17 ).

The justices on Jan. 17 denied a petition asking whether forum-selection clauses—provisions in employee benefit plans that limit the courts in which workers can file suit—are permissible under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The court denied a similar petition in January 2016 after asking the U.S. solicitor general to file a brief on the case—a move generally seen as indicating the justices’ interest in a topic.

The Labor Department has a long and unsuccessful history of arguing against forum-selection clauses in ERISA-governed benefit plans. Despite filing four separate briefs on this topic over the past eight years—including in this case—the department lacks a single court victory to show for its efforts. The only appellate court to have squarely addressed this issue rejected the DOL’s arguments in a 2014 decision upholding a forum-selection clause in a plan sponsored by Aegon Cos.

In the department’s view, forum-selection clauses contradict ERISA’s goal of providing workers with “ready access to the Federal courts.” By contractually forcing workers to litigate in jurisdictions they have no connection with, employers violate the ERISA-guaranteed right of workers to seek benefits in the venue they select, the department contended.

In recent months, courts have enforced forum-selection clauses in plans sponsored by NCR Corp., Bank of New York Mellon, AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co., Ascension Health Alliance and Caterpillar Inc.

At least one judge recently issued a decision declining to follow suit. In July, an Illinois federal judge refused to enforce a forum-selection clause in a plan sponsored by BP Corp. North America Inc., citing the “strong public policy set forth in ERISA.”

In this case, an Arizona woman seeking employer-provided disability benefits objected to her lawsuit being transferred to a federal court in Missouri. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a one-sentence judgment refusing to undo the transfer.

The petition for Supreme Court review was filed by Stris & Maher LLP.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacklyn Wille in Washington at jwille@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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