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SMITH v. PENSION PLAN OF BETHLEHEM STEEL CORP.

June 28, 1989

IRIS SMITH, Plaintiff
v.
THE PENSION PLAN OF BETHLEHEM STEEL CORPORATION and SUBSIDIARY COMPANIES, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SMITH

 Before this court is the question of whether subject matter jurisdiction exists in this case which turns upon resolution of an issue of matrimonial law. Plaintiff, Iris Smith (Iris), was married to David Phillips in August 1967. Complaint, para. 4. In August 1978, Iris, "believing that she was no longer the wife of David Phillips," married Nathaniel Smith. Complaint, para. 5. Thereafter, Iris used Nathaniel's last name and lived with Nathaniel as his wife. Complaint, para. 10 and 11. In 1980, after realizing that she was not legally divorced from David Phillips, Iris filed a divorce action. A final decree was entered in December 1980. Complaint, para. 6 and 7. Iris and Nathaniel believed that the divorce decree transformed Iris into Nathaniel's legal wife. Complaint, para. 15. No formal marriage ceremony was performed at any point after the divorce decree. Nathaniel died July 21, 1988.

 While Iris and Nathaniel were living together, Nathaniel was an employee of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation and was covered by the company Pension Plan. Under the Pension Plan, Iris would be entitled to a surviving spouse's benefit if: 1) Nathaniel completed fifteen years with Bethlehem Steel; 2) she was his wife at the time of his retirement and; 3) she is a widow under the provisions of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Court's Suggestion That It May Lack Subject Matter Jurisdiction, p. 5. Defendant refused to provide Iris with spousal benefits, however, "because she was not and could not have been married to Mr. Smith" at the time of his retirement. Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Support of Petition to Remove, p. 4.

 Iris then filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Iris' claim sought a declaration that she had been the wife of Nathaniel Smith at the time of his death on July 21, 1988, and had been his common law wife since December 1980. Defendant removed this action asserting federal question jurisdiction pursuant to ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq.

 Thereafter, at a status conference, we raised sua sponte the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. In particular, we noted that the domestic relations abstention doctrine applied in Solomon v. Solomon, 516 F.2d 1018 (3rd Cir. 1975), militated against exercising jurisdiction. Both parties briefed the issue at the Court's request.

 Before we reach the viability of the domestic relations abstention doctrine in federal question jurisdiction, however, we must determine if plaintiff's claim is pre-empted. If plaintiff's claim is pre-empted, then this matter is exclusively a federal concern and abstention principles are inapplicable.

 Section 1144(a) provides that "the provisions of this subchapter . . . shall supersede any and all state laws insofar as they may relate to any employee benefit plan . . . ." 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). The phrase "relate to any employee benefit plan" has been interpreted broadly. In Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724, 85 L. Ed. 2d 728, 105 S. Ct. 2380 (1985), Justice Blackmun stated that the phrase "relate to" has a "common sense meaning such that a state law 'relate[s] to' a benefit plan . . . if it has a connection with or reference to such a plan." Id. at 739, construing Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 77 L. Ed. 2d 490, 103 S. Ct. 2890 (1983). Justice Blackmun concluded that Massachusetts state law which required benefit plans to provide mental health benefits "related to" ERISA and was subject to the pre-emption clause. Metropolitan Life, 471 U.S. at 739.

  In 1987, the Court held that ERISA's pre-emption clause also encompassed state common law causes of action. Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 95 L. Ed. 2d 39, 107 S. Ct. 1549 (1987). The state causes of action were based on an alleged processing of an employee's claim for benefits and, therefore, were "related to" an employee benefit plan. Id. at 47. Similarly, a plaintiff's state law claims based on an alleged breach of contract for the termination of worker's compensation benefits were pre-empted in Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 95 L. Ed. 2d 55, 107 S. Ct. 1542 (1987).

 Accordingly, the Third Circuit held that a plaintiff's state action which endeavored to recover benefits under an employee benefit plan was pre-empted in Shiffler v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc. of the United States, 838 F.2d 78 (3rd Cir.1988). Insurance proceeds also were the ultimate goal of the plaintiff in Kriebel v. Phoenix Mut. Life Ins. Co., 699 F. Supp. 496 (W.D.Pa. 1988). The court in Kriebel found that plaintiff's claims were pre-empted because they could not be adjudicated "without reference to the specific provisions of the Plan." Id. at 499.

 Although the scope of ERISA's pre-emption clause is broad, there are state laws which do not "relate to" an employee benefit plan. Albert Einstein Medical Center v. Action Manufacturing Company, 697 F. Supp. 883 (E.D.Pa. 1988). The plaintiff's estoppel claim in Action Manufacturing was not preempted because the court found the claim to be "independent of the defendant's actual obligations under the benefit plan." Id. at 884. In fact, the court noted that plaintiff's cause of action did not "in any sense turn on an interpretation of the rights of a beneficiary under the plan." Id.

 We find plaintiff's action in the case at bar is not "related to" the employee benefit plan of the defendant. The relief sought by Iris is not dependent on the interpretation of the plan or a beneficiary's rights under the plan. Admittedly, the eventual outcome of Iris' suit will determine if she is entitled to benefits. But Iris' state law action does not, from a common sense perspective, refer to or connect with the plan. "In addition, the congressional purpose underlying the breadth of ERISA's preemption provision -- to secure uniform federal laws regulating employee benefit plans -- is not advanced by preemption . . ." of this state action based purely on Pennsylvania's matrimonial law. Action Manufacturing, 697 F. Supp. at 885. Accordingly, Iris' cause of action is not preempted. *fn1" We, therefore, address whether abstention is in order in this domestic relations matter.

 The domestic relations abstention doctrine applied in Solomon v. Solomon, 516 F.2d at 1018, was consistent with the traditional reluctance of the federal courts to entertain cases involving domestic relations. The plaintiff wife in Solomon brought a diversity action against her ex-husband alleging a breach of their separation agreement. The circuit court reviewed the Supreme Court law regarding abstention in domestic relations issues and concluded that federal courts do not have jurisdiction in domestic relations matters except in two limited situations. Since the facts in Solomon failed to fit either exception the court found the district court's abstention justified.

 Defendant contends that the domestic relations abstention doctrine in Solomon is applicable only to actions in diversity jurisdiction. Consequently, defendant argues that Solomon is not controlling in this federal question matter. Defendant urges this Court to exercise jurisdiction.

 We recognize that Solomon, 516 F.2d at 1018, presented the domestic relations abstention doctrine in the context of a diversity case. We do not find that factor alone, however, precludes the application of the domestic relations exception in an appropriate federal question action. Nor do we find the inapplicability of the exception to a federal question matter concerning the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1738A, as an outright prohibition of the application of the exception to all federal question matters. See Flood v. Braaten, 727 F.2d 303 (3rd Cir.1984). Rather, the absence of cases declining federal jurisdiction on the basis of the domestic relations exception in federal question cases can be attributed to the fact that "until recently neither the Constitution nor the laws of the United States were seen as affecting the family unit." Flood, 727 F.2d at ...


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