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Waeltz v. Delta Pilots Retirement Plan

August 23, 2002

JOHN A. WAELTZ AND HERBERT A. JOHNSON, JR., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
DELTA PILOTS RETIREMENT PLAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 01 C 87--Michael J. Reagan, Judge.

Before Ripple, Kanne and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ripple, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED SEPTEMBER 20, 2001

Plaintiffs John Waeltz, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, and Herbert Johnson, a current Delta pilot, brought this action against the Delta Pilots Retirement Plan ("the Plan") under Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"). They sought to recover benefits allegedly due to Mr. Waeltz and to challenge the method that the Plan used to calculate benefit distributions. The Plan is administered in Atlanta, Georgia, and conducts all of its business there. Plaintiffs chose to lay venue, however, in the Southern District of Illinois. Upon motion by the Plan, the district court dismissed the action for improper venue. Mr. Waeltz and Mr. Johnson appeal that dismissal. For the reasons set forth in the following opinion, we affirm the district court's dismissal for improper venue.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Mr. Waeltz resided in the Southern District of Illinois from 1977 to December 2000; he then moved to Florida. He had worked as a pilot for Delta Airlines from 1970 until his retirement in 1997. Mr. Johnson resides in the Southern District of Illinois and has worked as a pilot for Delta Airlines since 1987. He has not yet retired. The Plan provides pension benefits for Delta pilots and is administered entirely in Atlanta, Georgia. Neither plaintiff has received any benefits in the Southern District of Illinois. The Plan has deposited Mr. Waeltz's monthly benefit payments into his account at the Delta Employees Credit Union in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Waeltz received some of his benefits in a lump sum distribution, which the Plan sent to Harris Trust Bank in Chicago, Illinois. See R.32, Supp. Affidavit of Leon A. Piper, ¶¶ 3-4. Mr. Johnson has not yet retired and therefore has received no benefits. Neither plaintiff has earned any benefits in the Southern District of Illinois because neither pilot has performed any work for Delta there. There is no work-related reason for pilots to live in the Southern District of Illinois. Mr. Johnson is currently based in Atlanta, Georgia.

B. District Court Proceedings

The plaintiffs brought their action against the Plan in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1406(a) and 1404(a), the Plan moved to transfer the case to the Northern District of Georgia. The Plan contended that the Southern District of Illinois was not a proper venue under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2), the venue provision governing actions brought under Title I of ERISA. The Plan also submitted that the Northern District of Georgia offered the most convenient venue to litigate the case because all of the Plan's documents and all witnesses associated with the Plan were located there and all of the events giving rise to the plaintiffs' complaint occurred there. At the hearing on the Plan's motion to transfer, the Plan amended its motion to ask the court to dismiss the case for improper venue if the court decided not to transfer the case to Georgia.

The venue provision of Title I of ERISA allows plaintiffs to lay venue "where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found . . . ." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). Mr. Waeltz and Mr. Johnson contended that the Plan could "be found" in the Southern District of Illinois, either because the district court had personal jurisdiction over the Plan or because several plan participants lived in the district. The district court determined, however, that the authorities relied upon by the plaintiffs did not support either of their positions. Moreover, it pointed out that of the 2,740 retired Delta Airlines pilots, only two resided in the Southern District of Illinois, and of the two plaintiffs, only Mr. Johnson resided in the district, and he had not retired. Therefore, because the Plan carried on all of its business in Atlanta, because the plaintiffs had earned no benefits while in the Southern District of Illinois, and because neither plaintiff received any benefit payments in the Southern District of Illinois, the district court concluded that the Plan did not reside and could not "be found" in the Southern District of Illinois. Therefore, the court dismissed the case for improper venue.

II. DISCUSSION

This court ordinarily defers to a district court's venue determinations unless the district court has abused its discretion. See Milwaukee Concrete Studios, Ltd. v. Fjeld Mfg. Co., Inc., 8 F.3d 441, 445 (7th Cir. 1993). When, as here, a case involves the statutory interpretation of a venue statute, however, and not the discretionary interpretation of disputed facts, this court reviews venue determinations de novo. See id.

Title 29, § 1132(e)(2) of the United States Code specifies where plaintiffs may bring actions under Title I of ERISA. It provides:

Where an action under this subchapter is brought in a district court of the United States, it 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, and process may be served in any other district ...


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