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Kelly v. Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

January 25, 2018



          David L. Bunning, United States District Judge.


         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's ERISA-benefits[1] claim based upon the forum-selection clause found within the ERISA Plan. For the reasons below, the Court will deny the Motion to Dismiss and transfer the action to the Western District of Pennsylvania.


         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges breach of contract, or alternatively, improper decision making under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), leading to the denial of his long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits. (Doc. # 9). He seeks the entirety of the benefits he believes he is owed under contract, attorney's fees, pre- and post-judgment interest, and $110 per day for failing to timely respond to a request for documents. Id. at 6.

         On July 31, 2017, Defendants Liberty Life Assurance Company, Consol Energy, Inc., Consol Energy, Inc. Flexible Benefits Program Long Term Disability Plan, and Senior Vice President Human-Resources filed a Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, arguing that the forum-selection provision in LTD Plan requires that all disputes arising out of the Plan be litigated in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. (Docs. # 19, 20). Among the documents that Defendants attached to their memorandum in support are: (1) Long Term Disability Benefits Summary Plan Description (the “SPD”); and CONSOL Energy, Inc. Health & Welfare Plan (the “Wrap Plan”). (Docs. # 20-1 and 20-2). Defendants request that this action be dismissed without prejudice to Plaintiff's right to refile in the proper forum. (Doc. # 20 at 10). Plaintiff responded to the Motion to Dismiss, requesting that the motion be denied, or alternatively, that the Court transfer the case in lieu of dismissal. (Doc. # 22). Defendants having replied (Doc. # 23), this matter is ripe for the Court's review.

         Subsequent to the parties' briefing, the Court issued an order requiring Defendants to provide a copy of the full Long Term Disability Benefits Plan. (Doc. # 24). Defendants responded with a notice indicating that the Wrap Plan, as it incorporates the SPD, is the entire Plan. (Doc. # 25). Upon further review of the briefing, Plaintiff does not dispute this proposition. (Doc. # 22 at 4).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The standard is met when the facts in the complaint allow “the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but must contain more than mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Id. Instead, the “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculation level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

         Where a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) asks the court to consider “matters outside the pleadings, ” the motion “must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). However, because under Rule 10(c), “[a] copy of a written instrument that is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes, ” documents attached to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion that are “referred to in the complaint” and “central to the plaintiff's complaint” may be properly considered under the Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review. Weiner v. Klais and Co., Inc., 108 F.3d 86, 89 (6th Cir. 1997) (abrogated on other grounds) (quoting Venture Assocs. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp., 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993).

         B. The Plan's forum-selection provision is valid and enforceable.

         One of the Congressional policies behind ERISA is to “provide ‘ready access to the Federal courts.'” Smith v. Aegon Cos. Pension Plan, 769 F.3d 922, 931 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing 29. U.S.C. § 1001(b)). Thus, ERISA's venue provision states that an action brought in a United States District Court “may be brought in the district where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132. So long as the forum-selection clause provides for actions to be brought in one of these three venues, no conflict exists between the forum-selection clause and ERISA's venue provision. Id. at 932.[2]

         In this action, both the Defendant Plan and Defendant Plan Administrator are alleged to be citizens and residents of Pennsylvania, with addresses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Doc. # 9 at 3). The forum-selection clause-included in the SPD as it is incorporated in the Plan-requires litigation arising out of a denial of Plan benefits to be brought in “a state or federal court located in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.” (Doc. # 20-1 at 23). The Court takes judicial notice that Pittsburgh is within Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. In addition, all parties agree that the Plan is administered in Canonsburg, Washington County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. # 20 at 8; Doc. # 22 at 7). The Court takes judicial notice that Washington County, Pennsylvania is within the same federal judicial district as Allegheny County, ...

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