By Jules Levenson and Mark Casciari

Seyfarth SynopsisIn a decision with major significance for ERISA plans, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld the validity of forum selection clauses in those plans.

ERISA is replete with details. Among them is the proper forum for litigation under the statute. ERISA lists multiple potential venues.  The question then becomes whether an ERISA plan can mandate that litigation must be commenced in one of those venues. Pondering this question is not merely an academic exercise as ERISA jurisprudence is not uniform, raising the risk of inconsistent interpretations by different courts. Additionally, certain courts see more ERISA litigation than others, allowing greater familiarity with the statute.

In the case of In re Becker, No. 20-72805, – F.3d – (9th Cir. April 1, 2021), the Ninth Circuit considered whether the district court properly transferred a 401(k) plan lawsuit from the Northern District of California to the District of Minnesota (where the plan sponsor resides and the plan is administered) pursuant to the plan’s forum-selection clause.

ERISA provides that lawsuits “‘may be brought’ where: (1) the plan is administered; (2) the breach took place; or (3) a defendant resides or may be found.” The Court held that the statute’s use of “may” indicates that any of these options is acceptable. (Indeed, the Court said, even an arbitration forum is permitted). Accordingly, it held that a plan clause mandating where a lawsuit may be commenced is permitted by the statute if the selected forum is one of those listed in the statute.

The Court noted that a forum selection clause can support the important ERISA goal of uniform plan administration by having the same court interpreting the plan.  Plan sponsors can readily appreciate this point as they prefer to select individuals to serve as plan fiduciaries who can be expected to review many claims in a consistent fashion.

The Ninth Circuit decision comports with all other Courts of Appeal decisions that have considered the ERISA plan forum selection issue and should make ERISA litigation more predictable, while frustrating any potential forum shopping by plaintiffs.