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Poindexter v. Miller

March 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sean J. McLAUGHLIN United States District Judge


McLAUGHLIN, SEAN J., District J.

This civil action was filed in the Court of Common Pleas for Venango County, Pennsylvania by the Plaintiff, Maebelle Poindexter, who is proceeding pro se. Plaintiff is the widow of one Daniel Poindexter, who was formerly employed at Joy Manufacturing/ Technologies in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff alleges that human resources personnel at Joy Manufacturing negligently accepted and processed a falsified spousal consent form which affected the manner in which benefits would be distributed under her husband's pension plan, known as "The Joy Global Pension Plan." The Defendant, Jerry Miller, is the Human Resources Director of the Joy Manufacturing plant in Franklin, Pennsylvania, where Plaintiff's husband was employed. Defendant filed a notice of removal on May 11, 2009, claiming that the complaint is properly construed as asserting a claim under Section 502(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a), and that this Court therefore has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441 and 1446.

Presently pending before me is a motion by the Defendant to dismiss the putative ERISA claim for legal insufficiency. Because I conclude that this Court lacks proper removal jurisdiction over the matter, I will dismiss this action and remand it to state court.


A. Removal

This case was removed from state court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which states that "any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant" to the appropriate division of the United States District Court "embracing the place where such action is pending." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Subsection (b) of the statute provides that "[a]ny civil action of which the district courts have original jurisdiction founded on a claim or right arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States shall be removable without regard to citizenship or residence of the parties." Id. at § 1441(b).

B. Jurisdictional Standard of Review

Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, we have an obligation to address the question of subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte. Meritcare v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 166 F.3d 214, 217 (3d Cir. 1999) (a district court may "address the question of jurisdiction even if the parties do not raise th issue"); Sopak v. Highmark, Inc., No. Civ. A. 01-1750, 2002 WL 1271366 at *2 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 19, 2002). A defendant has the right to remove a case to federal court when federal jurisdiction exists and the removal procedure is properly followed. 28 U.S.C. § 1441. However, removal jurisdiction is construed narrowly, Dawson v. Bakare, No. 4:09-CV-0036, 2009 WL 2038146 at *2 (M.D. Pa. July 6, 2009), and therefore any doubts as to jurisdiction are resolved in favor of the non-removing party. Boyer v. Snap-On Tools Corp., 913 F.2d 108, 111 (3d Cir.1990). Moreover, the removing defendant bears the burden of proving that removal was proper. Boyer, supra, at 111; Gatti v. Western Pennsylvania Teamsters & Employers Welfare Fund, Civil Action No. 07-1178, 2007 WL 3072264 at *1 (W.D. Pa. Oct. 19, 2007). Where a court determines that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction -- as where, e.g., removal was improper -- the court is required to remand the case to state court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) ("If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded.").

C. ERISA and Preemption

Under the "well-pleaded complaint" rule, federal question jurisdiction exists only when an issue of federal law appears on the face of the plaintiff's complaint. Pryzbowski v. U.S. Healthcare, Inc., 245 F.3d 266, 271 (3d Cir. 2001). The mere anticipation that a federal defense may be raised is insufficient to confer federal question jurisdiction. Id.

However, there is an exception to the "well-pleaded complaint rule": the doctrine of "complete preemption" provides that where Congress has so substantially predominated a particular area as to displace any state cause of action, any suit brought in that area is deemed federal in character and, accordingly, satisfies the "arising under federal law" requirement. See Dukes v. U.S. Healthcare, Inc., 57 F.3d 350, 354 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58 (1987)). In Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, the Supreme Court held that state law claims falling within the scope of § 502(a) of ERISA are completely preempted by that statute and removable to federal court. See Pryzbowski, 245 F.3d at 271 (citing Metropolitan Life, 481 U.S. at 66).

Section § 502(a)(1) provides, in relevant part, that a participant or beneficiary of an ERISA-regulated plan may bring a civil action "to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Thus, "[u]nder § 502(a), a beneficiary may obtain accrued benefits due, a declaratory judgment about entitlements of benefits, or an injunction to require the administrator to pay benefits." Pryzbowski, 245 F.3d at 272. Section § 502(a)(3) allows for civil actions "by a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary (A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (i) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan." It follows that, if Plaintiff's claim falls within the scope of § 502(a)(1)(B) or (a)(3), it is completely preempted.

As our Circuit Court of Appeals has noted, however, "[i]t is important to distinguish complete preemption under section 502(a) of ERISA, which is used in this sense as a jurisdictional concept, from express preemption under section 514(a) of ERISA, which is a substantive concept governing the applicable law." In re U.S. Healthcare, Inc., 193 F.3d 151, 160 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing In Joyce v. RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp., 126 F.3d 166, 171-72 (3d Cir.1997). Section 514(a) provides that ERISA "shall supersede any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan...." 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). State-law claims that are subject to this "express preemption" are displaced and thus subject to dismissal, see id., Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724, 739 (1985), but they are not subject to removal. See Joyce ...

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