ERISA and venue selection

Smith v. Aegon Cos. Pension Plan, No. 13-5492 (6th Cir. Oct. 14, 2014).

ERISA—the federal law on pensions and employee benefit plans—has a tendency to terrify nonspecialists, but this is an ERISA case that doesn’t require immersion in the minutiae of Department of Labor regulations. 

ERISA provides that a suit under its provisions “may be brought” in three different locations: where the plan is administered, where the legal violation took place, or where the defendant resides or may be found. 

Can a pension or benefit plan require plan participants to sue in just one or two of those three locations? In other words, does “may be brought” give participants an unqualified right to sue in all of the three permissible locations? The panel majority here says “no”: a plan can restrict suit to just one or two of the three locations.

But can a plan do more than that? Can it require plan participants to sue outside any of the three locations? The panel majority says “yes”: ERISA’s venue statute isn’t meant to restrict a plan’s right to select a forum of its own choice. 

Judge Clay disagrees with the majority’s answers to these questions, and dissents.