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Crummett v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

July 16, 2007

CHERYL CRUMMETT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This is an action brought by plaintiff Cheryl Crummett pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., in which Crummett claims that defendants Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife Co."); Bureau of National Affairs Long Term Disability Groups Policy (the "Plan"); and the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. ("BNA"),*fn1 wrongfully denied her long-term disability ("LTD") benefits and breached their fiduciary duties to her. Before the court are MetLife's combined motions for a protective order against discovery [#9] and for partial judgment on the pleadings [#10]. These motions present two questions: (1) whether, given the Plan's vesting of discretion with MetLife regarding benefits decisions, Crummett may seek any discovery in this action; and (2) whether Crummett may bring claims both for wrongful denial of benefits pursuant to ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), and for breach of fiduciary duty pursuant to § 502(a)(3) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). Upon consideration of the motions, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the court concludes that Crummett may not pursue claims under both § 502(a)(1)(B) and § 502(a)(3) but may seek limited discovery.

I. BACKGROUND

The Plan is an employee welfare benefit plan. MetLife Co. is the designated claims administrator of the Plan and BNA is the designated "Plan Administrator," and "Plan Sponsor" of the Plan. By virtue of her status as an employee of BNA, Crummett was eligible to participate in the Plan. During her employment with the Company, Crummett became stricken with a serious illness and disease. She applied for benefits under the Plan in late 2005.*fn2 MetLife ultimately denied her application, and Crummett filed the present action.

II. ANALYSIS

A. May Crummett Maintain Claims Under Both § 502(a)(1)(B) And § 502(a)(3)?

ERISA § 502(a) provides, in pertinent part, that "a civil action may be brought" under ERISA:

(1) by a participant or beneficiary -

(B) 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; [or] . . .

(3) 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 . . . .

29 U.S.C. § 1132(a). MetLife contends that Crummett's § 502(a)(3) claim for breach of fiduciary duty should be dismissed as being duplicative of her § 502(a)(1)(B) claim for denial of benefits.

In support of its position, MetLife relies on Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489 (1996), and its progeny. In Varity, the Supreme Court held that § 502(a)(3) authorizes "appropriate" equitable relief, including claims for breach of fiduciary duty, at least in circumstances where Congress has not "elsewhere [in ERISA] provided adequate relief for a beneficiary's injury." Id. at 515.*fn3 Metlife contends that because Crummett may pursue a claim for benefits under § 502(a)(1)(B), she has an adequate remedy and her claim § 502(a)(3) claim must be dismissed.

The D.C. Circuit has not addressed the question of whether plaintiffs may pursue claims under both subsections; other courts are somewhat split on the question. The majority view is that, at least where a plaintiff's fiduciary-duty/equitable claims brought under § 502(a)(3) are "nothing more than repackaged denial of benefits claims," Gore v. El Paso Energy Corp., 477 F.3d 833, 838 (6th Cir. 2007), they must be dismissed. Ibid. (citing Wilkins v. Baptist Healthcare Sys. Inc., 150 F.3d 609, 615 (6th Cir. 1998) (holding that if such claims could go forward, plaintiffs would be allowed "to simply characterize a denial of benefits as a breach of fiduciary duty, a result which the Supreme Court expressly rejected" in Varity)); Hurley v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43038, at *31--*34 (D.D.C. July 7, 2005) ("Hurley I") (concluding, upon review of a motion to dismiss, that a plaintiff's "claim for ERISA breach of fiduciary duty is preempted by the existence of a valid claim . . . for denial of benefits"); Korotynska v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 474 F.3d 101 (4th Cir. 2006) (holding that a plaintiff's § 502(a)(3) claim could not proceed because allegations of procedural deficiencies in the denial of benefits were adequately remedied pursuant to § 502(a)(1)(B)); Antolik v. Saks, Inc., 463 F.3d 796, 803 (8th Cir. 2006) ("Where a plaintiff is provided adequate relief by the right to bring a claim for benefits under . . . § 1132(a)(1)(B), the plaintiff does not have a cause of action to seek the same remedy under § 1132(a)(3)(B)." (quotation omitted)); Jones v. Am. Gen. Life & Accident Ins. Co., 370 F.3d 1065, 1072--73 (11th Cir. 2004) ("[A]n ERISA plaintiff with an 'adequate remedy' under Section 502(a)(1)(B) [may] not alternatively plead and proceed under Section 502(a)(3)."); Tolson v. Avondale Indus., Inc., 141 F.3d 604, 610 (5th Cir. 1998) (plaintiff seeking redress for the denial of benefits had adequate relief under § 502(a)(1)(B) and could not pursue a claim under § 502(a)(3)). The Second Circuit has held - not necessarily in disagreement with its sister circuits - that Varity does not create a bright-line rule barring equitable claims where benefits-denial claims are asserted, but rather simply stands for the proposition that where adequate remedies lie elsewhere, claims under § 502(a)(3) "normally [will] not be 'appropriate.'" Devlin v. Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 274 F.3d 76, 89 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Varity, 516 U.S. at 515); see also Green v. ExxonMobil Corp., 470 F.3d 415, 421 (1st Cir. 2006) (declining "to address the broader controversy about the scope of section (a)(3)" because there was no breach of fiduciary duty in the case at bar).

Crummett does not dispute that where an adequate remedy is available under subsection (1)(B), claims under subsection (3) are inappropriate; rather, she asserts that fiduciary duty claims should not be dismissed at the pleadings stage - that is, the claim should be allowed to proceed until it is apparent that the remedies available pursuant to subsection (1)(B) are, in fact, inadequate. Several cases support this view. See Goepfort v. Trustmark Ins. Co., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64779, at *6 (E.D. Wisc. Sept. 11, 2006) ("[A] district court generally should not dismiss a [§ 502(a)(3)] claim as duplicative of a claim for benefits at the motion to dismiss stage of a case. This is so because: (1) it may be difficult to determine at the pleading stage of a case whether relief is available under [§ 502](a)(1)(B); (2) some allegations might support a claim under [§ 502](a)(1)(B) and others a claim under [§ 502](a)(3); (3) Varity Corp. did not deal with pleading but with relief; and (4) federal pleading rules allow a plaintiff to plead claims hypothetically or alternatively."); Doyle v. Nationwide Ins. Cos. & Affiliates Employee Health Care Plan, 240 F. Supp. 2d 328, 349--50 (E.D. Pa. 2003) (rejecting the view that there is a bright-line rule that a claim for equitable relief under Section 502(a)(3) should be dismissed when ...


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