ERISA defendants have long maintained that there is no statutory or constitutional right to a jury trial in ERISA cases. Almost always, the courts have agreed, citing ERISA’s trust law origins and the Seventh Amendment’s application only to suits seeking legal, not equitable, relief. The reasoning goes that because under ERISA you may obtain only relief that was traditionally available in courts of equity, the right to a jury trial does not exist.
A recent spate of high-profile U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing ERISA and the nature of legal versus equitable relief led some to speculate that plaintiffs would leverage those decisions to renew their demands for jury trials in ERISA cases, reminiscent of what happened after Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204 (2002). Knudson held that a plaintiff seeking “to compel the defendant to pay a sum of money” was seeking a legal remedy, not an equitable one, and plaintiffs subsequently seized on this language to argue that they were entitled to jury trials in cases in which they sought to recover money damages.
That concern appears to have been unwarranted. Recent cases have reinforced the absence of a jury trial right in ERISA cases seeking money damages. Following the Supreme Court’s opinion in Cigna Corp. v. Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866 (2011), one district court relied upon Amara to strike a plaintiff’s jury demand. See Smith v. State Farm Group Long Term Disability Plan, No. 12 C 9210, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121572 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 27, 2013). And a survey of recent opinions examining whether a jury trial is available in ERISA cases indicates that the answer remains a resounding no. One outlier, Hellmann v. Cataldo, No. 12-cv-02177-AGF, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117676 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 20, 2013), has not yet been relied upon in any other reported decision.
While some may claim that the figurative jury is still out, all indications are that ERISA defendants will not face trial before a jury.