Eighth Circuit Affirms Enforcement of ERISA Plan Forum Selection Clause
The Eighth Circuit enforced an ERISA plan’s forum selection clause and denied plaintiff’s appeal to have her lawsuit for disability benefits transferred back to the District of Arizona. Plaintiff Lorna Clause, who lives in Arizona, is a participant of the Ascension Long-Term Disability Plan. Her application for disability benefits was denied. After exhausting her administrative remedies, Clause filed suit against Defendants in the District of Arizona. Defendants moved to transfer the case to the Eastern District of Missouri based on the Plan’s forum selection clause. The Arizona court granted the motion, reasoning that Clause had notice of the forum selection clause from the summary plan description, there was no bad faith or overreaching on the part of defendants, and any information sought from defendants in the litigation would likely be located in Missouri.
Interestingly, the Arizona court did not address the issue taken on by many courts to have considered the enforceability of forum selection clauses in ERISA plans, i.e., whether a forum selection clause is consistent with ERISA’s policy to provide litigants “ready access to the Federal courts.” Once transferred to federal court in Missouri, Clause moved to transfer the case back to Arizona, but the court in Missouri denied the motion. The court rejected Clause’s contention that ERISA’s venue selection clause does not permit modification because ERISA does not expressly prohibit the use of such clauses, and denied the motion based on a wealth of decisions enforcing forum selection clauses in ERISA plans. Clause then filed a writ of mandamus before the Eighth Circuit, which the Circuit denied in a one-line order. The case is In re Lorna Clause, No. 16-2607 (8th Cir. Sept. 27, 2016).