By: Tom Horan, Ian Morrison, and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: Recognizing that the Plan contained an unambiguous arbitration  provision, and that “ERISA claims are generally arbitrable,” the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals nonetheless found that arbitration could not be compelled where the provision prospectively barred the plaintiff from pursuing certain statutory remedies.

In Smith v. Bd. of Dirs. of Triad Mfg., Inc., a Plan participant brought a putative class action suit asserting that the Plan’s fiduciaries breached their fiduciary duties and engaged in prohibited transactions in connection with the sale of all of the Plan sponsor’s stock to the Plan. Within two weeks of the transaction, the shares’ ostensible value dropped from $106 million to less than $4 million.

After the stock transaction—but before the suit was filed—the Plan sponsor amended the Plan to add an arbitration provision with a class action waiver. The provision prohibited an individual from bringing claims in anything other than an individual capacity, and further stated that an individual could not “seek or receive any remedy which has the purpose or effect of providing . . . relief to any [person] other than the Claimant.”

Based on this language, the Plan moved to compel individual arbitration of Plaintiff’s suit. The district court denied the motion. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit stated it was guided by the “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements,” but nonetheless affirmed the decision of the district court, based on the “effective vindication” exception to the FAA. This exception invalidates arbitration agreements that operate as prospective waivers of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies. Here, the plaintiff sought a variety of equitable remedies—including the potential removal of the Plan’s trustee—which would inescapably have had the effect of providing relief to individuals beyond the Plaintiff. As such, Plaintiff’s requested relief was impermissibly in conflict with the Plan’s arbitration provision.

The Seventh Circuit stated that its holding is limited to the language of the arbitration provision at issue, and that it was not deciding whether a claimant could be bound by an amendment enacted after his employment ended, or whether a plan sponsor can unilaterally amend a plan to require arbitration as to all participants. The Court was also quick to say that it did not view its decision as creating conflict with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp. (discussed here), in which that court held a that an ERISA plan’s mandatory arbitration and class action waiver provision was enforceable, and could require individualized arbitration of fiduciary breach claims. Still, the tension between the Seventh Circuit’s holding in Smith and the Ninth’s in Dorman—together with the Supreme Court’s repeated statements encouraging enforcement of arbitration provisions—has already lead to speculation that a petition for certiorari will be filed.

Thus, while the Seventh Circuit in Smith stated that ERISA claims are generally arbitrable, Smith leaves open many questions about the proper scope of such provisions and how those provisions (to the extent they are enforceable) will shape ensuing arbitration and litigation. Stay tuned as we continue to track this evolving area of the law.