United States District Court, District of Columbia
MELISSA STANLEY, individually and as representative of a class of participants and beneficiaries on behalf of The George Washington University Retirement Plan for Faculty and Staff and The George Washington University Supplemental Retirement Plan, Plaintiff,
THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.
D. BATES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Stanley brings this putative class action against her former
employer, The George Washington University,  alleging breaches
of fiduciary duty in violation of the Employee Retirement
Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”)
§§ 502(a)(2), (a)(3) (codified at 29 U.S.C.
§§ 1132(a)(2), (a)(3)). Pending before the Court is
 GW's motion to dismiss. GW argues that Stanley lacks
standing to sue because she signed a general release of
claims against the University. Stanley responds that her
claims fall into an express exclusion in the general release
preserving claims for vested benefits under her retirement
plan. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that
Stanley has released her fiduciary breach claims against GW
under the terms of the release. Because this Court lacks
jurisdiction over released claims, the Court will grant
GW's motion and dismiss the complaint.
is a “comprehensive and reticulated” statute
aimed at protecting participants in private employee
retirement plans. Nachman Corp. v. Pension Benefit Guar.
Corp., 446 U.S. 359, 361 (1980); see 29 U.S.C.
§ 1001(a)-(b). Today, most private retirement plans are
“‘defined contribution plan[s]' or
‘individual account plan[s].'” See LaRue
v. DeWolff, Boberg & Assocs., Inc., 552 U.S. 248,
250 n.1 (2008) (citation omitted). Such plans
“promise the participant the value of an individual
account at retirement, which is largely a function of the
amounts contributed to that account and the investment
performance of those contributions.” Id.
authorizes participants to bring various “types of
civil actions” to protect their interests. Mass.
Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Russell, 473 U.S. 134, 139 (1985);
see ERISA § 502(a), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a).
Some of those actions “focus upon specific areas,
” or particular types of ERISA violations, while others
are “‘catchalls,' providing
‘appropriate equitable relief' for . . . injuries
caused by violations that § 502 does not elsewhere
adequately remedy.” Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516
U.S. 489, 512 (1996). Two “specific” and one
“catchall” action are relevant to Stanley's
first specific type of action, brought pursuant to ERISA
§ 502(a)(1)(B), empowers a participant to “recover
benefits due to [her] under the terms of [her employee
benefit] plan, to enforce [her] rights under the terms of the
plan, or to clarify [her] rights to future benefits under the
terms of the plan.” ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), 29
U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Section 502(a)(1)(B) suits, or
plan-based suits, provide a remedy “with respect to the
interpretation of plan documents and the payments of claims,
” Varity, 516 U.S. at 512, and may be used
“to recover accrued benefits” due under the plan,
Russell, 473 U.S. at 147. Most circuit courts,
including the D.C. Circuit, have held “that a
participant [is required to] exhaust . . . administrative
remedies” internal to the plan before making a
plan-based claim under § 502(a)(1)(B). LaRue,
552 U.S. at 258-59 (Roberts, C. J., concurring); see
Commc'ns Workers of Am. v. AT&T, 40 F.3d 426,
431 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (“[P]laintiffs seeking a
determination pursuant to ERISA of rights under their pension
plans ‘must . . . exhaust available administrative
remedies . . . before they may bring suit . . .
.'”). “The exhaustion doctrine effectuates
Congress's purpose in requiring that benefit plans
provide for administrative review procedures by
ensuring” that participants use “internal
remedial procedures” when making claims for benefits
under their plans. Stephens v. Pension Benefit Guar.
Corp., 755 F.3d 959, 964-65 (D.C. Cir. 2014); ERISA
§ 503, 29 U.S.C. § 1133.
second specific type of action, set forth in ERISA §
502(a)(2), permits participants and others to sue plan
administrators for violations of fiduciary duties set forth
in ERISA § 409(a), 29 U.S.C. § 1109(a). Section
409(a), in turn, “impose[s] [duties] on fiduciaries . .
. ‘relat[ing] to the proper management, administration,
and investment of fund assets,' with an eye toward
ensuring that ‘the benefits authorized by the plan'
are ultimately paid to participants and beneficiaries.”
LaRue, 552 U.S. at 253 (quoting Russell,
473 U.S. at 142). Fiduciaries that have breached their duties
in violation of section 409(a) are “liable to make good
to such plan any losses to the plan resulting from each such
breach.” ERISA § 409(a). Because section 502(a)(2)
suits, or statute-based suits, are brought on behalf
of a pension plan, they “do not provide a remedy for
individual injuries distinct from plan injuries.”
LaRue, 552 U.S. at 256. Nevertheless, because a
fiduciary breach may affect only some subset of participants
in a defined contribution plan, an individual plan
participant may sue on behalf of the plan to
“recoverfor fiduciary breaches that impair[ed] the
value of plan assets in [her] individual account.”
“catchall” provision, section 502(a)(3), permits
suits to “enjoin any act or practice which violates any
provision of this subchapter [of ERISA] or the terms of the
plan, or . . . to obtain other appropriate equitable relief .
. . to redress such violations.” ERISA §
502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3).
“Appropriate” equitable relief is “relief
that [was traditionally] available in equity, ”
Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248, 256 (1993)
(emphasis omitted), and that is not otherwise available
through a section 502(a)(1)(B) suit for “benefits due .
. . under the terms of the plan, ” Varity, 516
U.S. at 515 (alteration omitted); see Russell, 473
U.S. at 144; Boster v. Reliance Standard Life Ins.
Co., 959 F.Supp.2d 9, 30 (D.D.C. 2013) (“[C]ourts
in this Circuit have generally followed the view of the
majority of circuits that a breach of fiduciary [duty] claim
under § (a)(3) cannot stand when a plaintiff has an
adequate remedy for her injuries under §
(a)(1)(B).” (citation omitted)).
under ERISA sections 502(a)(2) and (a)(3) are meaningfully
distinct from those brought via section 502(a)(1)(B). Section
502(a)(2) and (a)(3) claims are generally brought in
conjunction “to enforce statutory ERISA
rights, ” whereas section 502(a)(1)(B) claims are
brought to enforce “contractual rights created
by the terms of a benefit plan.” Stephens, 755
F.3d at 965 (second emphasis added); see id. at
964-67 (distinguishing ERISA claims “alleging a
statutory violation” from “claims for
benefits” under “the terms of [employee] benefit
plans”); see also Zipf v. AT&T, 799 F.2d
889, 891-94 (3d Cir. 1986). And as the D.C. Circuit has held,
participants must administratively exhaust claims asserting
contractual rights, but not statutory rights,  before filing
suit in federal court. Moreover, while section 502(a)(2)
suits are brought in a representative capacity, so that
recovery runs to the plan, section 502(a)(1)(B) remedies
“run directly to the injured [participant or]
beneficiary.” Varity, 516 U.S. at 512.
of these critical distinctions, the Supreme Court has
cautioned that claims properly brought under section
502(a)(1)(B) may not necessarily also be brought under
sections 502(a)(2) and (a)(3). See Varity, 516 U.S.
at 515 (noting that section 502(a)(1)(B) claims are
“outside the framework of [section 502(a)(2)
claims]” and that section 502(a)(3) covers only
injuries that “§ 502 does not elsewhere . . .
remedy”); see also LaRue, 552 U.S. at 258-59
(Roberts, C.J., concurring) (“The significance of the
distinction between a § 502(a)(1)(B) claim and one under
§ 502(a)(2) is not merely a matter of picking the right
provision to cite in the complaint. Allowing a §
502(a)(1)(B) action to be recast as one under §
501(a)(2) might permit plaintiffs to circumvent safeguards
for plan administrators that have developed under §
these background principles in mind, the Court turns to the
relevant facts and procedural history.
Facts and Procedural History
is a former GW employee who participates in two of the
University's ERISA-regulated retirement plans-The George
Washington University Retirement Plan for Faculty and Staff
and The George Washington University Supplemental Retirement
Plan (collectively, the “Plans”). Compl. [ECF No.
1] ¶¶ 17, 29. The Plans are “defined
contribution, individual account . . . employee benefit
pension plans.” Id. ¶¶ 17, 21. As
the designated plan administrator, GW is the ERISA fiduciary
responsible for selecting and managing the investment options
provided to participants under the Plans. Id.
¶¶ 31, 34; see 29 U.S.C. §
1002(16)(A)(i). Stanley currently has a “vested account
balance in the [Plans].” Compl. ¶ 29.
2016, for reasons unrelated to the present suit, Stanley
entered a confidential settlement agreement with the
University in return for valuable consideration. See
generally Confidential Settlement Agreement &
General Release (“Agreement”) [ECF No.
The agreement contains a “General Release” clause
that provides, in relevant part, as follows:
Ms. Stanley, on behalf of herself and anyone who might claim
through her, hereby forever releases . . . the George
Washington University . . . from any and all claims . . . of
any nature whatsoever . . . (collectively,
“Claims”), which Ms. Stanley has or may have or
which may hereafter accrue or which may be asserted by
another on her behalf, arising prior to her execution of this
Agreement. This release includes, without limitation . . .
Claims for violation of any federal . . . statute . . .
including but not limited to Title VII of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age
Discrimination in Employment Act, the Family Medical Leave
Act, the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act, the Genetic
Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, and the D.C. Human
Rights Act. It is expressly understood that this is a GENERAL
RELEASE, and is intended to release claims to the fullest
extent permitted by law. Excluded from this General Release
is an action by Ms. Stanley to enforce the terms of this
Agreement, claims for vested benefits under employee benefit
plans, claims that arise after Ms. Stanley signs this
Agreement, any right Ms. ...