United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
September 20, 2005.
CYNTHIA EIDMANN, SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF BRADLEY EIDMANN JR., DECEASED, Plaintiff,
UNUM LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, a UNUMPROVIDENT Company, WINCOR NIXDORF, LLC LONG TERM DISABILITY PLAN, and PROVIDENT LIFE & ACCIDENT INSURANCE COMPANY, a UNUMPROVIDENT Company, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES ZAGEL, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Cynthia Eidmann, as Special Administrator for the
Estate of Bradley Eidmann, filed a Complaint seeking the payment
of disability benefits. Her two-count Complaint alleges ERISA
violations by Defendants Unum Life Insurance Company of America
("Unum") and Wincor Nixdorf LLC Long Term Disability Insurance
Plan (the "Plan") and violations of Illinois law by Defendant
Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company ("Provident").
Defendant Unum seeks dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6),
arguing that the Plan is the only proper defendant in a suit for
benefits under § 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA.
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of a complaint,
not the merits of a case. Autry v. Northwest Premium Servs.,
Inc., 144 F.3d 1037, 1039 (7th Cir. 1998). I should grant
Defendant Unum's motion only if Plaintiff cannot prove any set of
facts in support of her claim that would entitle her to relief.
Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). Furthermore, I must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations in the Complaint
as true, drawing all reasonable inferences from those facts in
Plaintiff's favor. Cleveland v. Rotman, 297 F.3d 569, 571 (7th
Cir. 2002). I may grant Defendant's motion only if "no relief
could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved
consistent with the allegations." Hishon v. King & Spalding,
467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984).
Within this Circuit, there is a general rule that the plan is
the proper party in a suit for benefits under § 502(a)(1)(B) of
ERISA. See, e.g., Jass v. Prudential Health Care Plan, Inc.,
88 F.3d 1482, 1490 (7th Cir. 1996). See also Moffat v. Unicare
Health Ins. Co., 352 F. Supp. 2d 873, 876 (N.D. Ill. 2005). In
Jass, the Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal of an individual
defendant named in a § 502(a) claim, noting that "ERISA permits
suits to recover benefits only against the Plan as an entity."
88 F.3d at 1490 (citation omitted). Subsequent decisions have relied
heavily on that statement to dismiss other non-plan defendants,
despite significant differences in the nature of the non-plan
defendants in those cases as compared to the non-plan defendant
in Jass, a Plan employee. See, e.g., Hupp v. Experian Corp.,
108 F. Supp. 2d 1008, 1013 (N.D. Ill. 2000) (dismissing employer
and plan administrator defendants); and Witowski v. Tetra Tech
Inc., 38 F. Supp. 2d 640, 644 (N.D. Ill. 1998) (dismissing claim
filed against defendant employer and plan administrator).
This broad application of the "Jass rule" has been the
subject of some criticism. See, e.g., Madaffari v. Metrocall
Cos. Group, No. 02 C 4201, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12739, at *12
(N.D. Ill. July 1, 2004) (observing that the dismissal of the
individual defendant in Jass was consistent with the language
of § 1132(d)(2) but that the statute was not necessarily a
"larger prohibition against all non-plan defendants" and
suggesting that reading Jass to require a "strict prohibition on suing entities other than `the plan'" would stretch the
statute "beyond its clear meaning"). Nonetheless, Jass's
reasoning continues to be followed. See, e.g., Black v. Long
Term Disability Ins. Co., 373 F. Supp. 2d 897, 900 (E.D. Wisc.
2005) (suggesting that application of the Jass rule to all
non-plan defendants "appears to be inconsistent with ERISA's goal
of protecting participants in employee benefit plans from those
in charge of such plans" but dismissing the "de facto"
administrator of the plan).
A better argument for the Jass rule may be that in suing the
plan, most plaintiffs will have identified the party that is both
necessary and sufficient for relief. See Matuszack v. Anesi,
Ozmon, Rodin, Novak & Kohen Ltd. Plan, No. 04 C 4152, 2004 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 21920, at *6-8 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 1, 2004) ("[t]he
presence of the Plan in this case is sufficient for plaintiff to
recover all possible relief") (citing Bahnaman v. Lucent Techs.
Inc., 219 F. Supp. 2d 921, 923 (N.D. Ill. 2002)). In fact,
courts have carved out narrow exceptions to the general rule in
situations where the identity of the Plan cannot be ascertained.
See Mein v. Carus Corp., 241 F.3d 581, 584 (7th Cir. 2001)
(holding that the employer/plan administrator was a proper
defendant in a claim for ERISA benefits when the employer and the
plan were closely intertwined); and Riordan v. Commonwealth
Edison Co., 128 F.3d 549, 551 (7th Cir. 1997) (declining to find
that the employer was not a proper party to an ERISA benefits
action where the plan documents referred to the employer and plan
interchangeably and the employer designated itself as the plan's
agent for service of process). See also Madaffari 2004 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS, at *14-15; and Penrose v. Hargford Life & Accident
Ins. Co., No. 02 C 2541, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13497, at *15
(N.D. Ill. Aug. 4, 2003) (holding that a third-party insurer was
a proper defendant in ERISA benefits action when Plaintiff was unable to
determine the identity of the Plan).
Plaintiff's claim does not fall within this exception to the
rule. Plaintiff had no difficulty identifying the Plan, which is
named as a co-defendant of her ERISA claim. I see no reason to
extend the narrow exceptions to the general rule to the
circumstances of this case. See Berg v. BCS Fin. Corp.,
372 F. Supp. 2d 1080, 1090-91 (N.D. Ill. 2005) (holding that the
defendant insurer was properly dismissed when the complaint
identified and specifically alleged wrongdoing on the part of the
plan, and where the plan defendant answered the complaint "in
effect, conceding that it is the proper party for [Plaintiff] to
sue"). Cf. Madaffari (refusing to dismiss an insurer who served
as the administrator of the plan when it was alleged that the
plan had no assets beyond an insurance policy and there was
ambiguity in determining identity of the plan entity).
In her brief opposing Unum's dismissal, Plaintiff suggests that
Unum must remain a party in the event that the Plan has no
assets. However, even unfunded top-hat plans are subject to the
general rule that the Plan is generally the only proper party to
a suit for ERISA benefits. See Berg, 372 F. Supp. 2d at 1089
(citing Garratt v. Knowles, 245 F.3d 941, 949 (7th Cir. 2001)).
Moreover, nowhere within her Complaint does Plaintiff allege that
the Plan will be unable to provide complete relief, or that Unum
and the Plan are so "closely intertwined" that Unum must remain a
defendant. Cf. Madaffari, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS at *14-15; and
Mein, 241 F.3d at 584.
Rather, Plaintiff alleges that Unum issued and underwrote the
benefit plan, and claims that Unum must remain a defendant
because it is the party that breached its contract in denying her husband's claim for benefits.*fn1 That is not a claim
the law of this Circuit generally allows, and I am bound by the
Seventh Circuit's approach. Whatever leeway Jass and subsequent
but distinct cases might allow, I appreciate the necessity
for consistency in similar cases among the district judges of
this Circuit. Those courts continue to apply the general rule
restricting claims for ERISA benefits to suits against the Plan,
even when underwritten and administered by an insurer. Berg,
372 F. Supp. 2d at 1089. Plaintiff must seek (as she has) relief
from the Plan itself.
For these reasons, Defendant Unum's Motion to dismiss is
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