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Illinois State Painters Welfare Fund v. Brummet

January 11, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, District Judge


Before the Court is a motion submitted by Plaintiffs Illinois State Painters Welfare Fund and Painters District Council #58 Fringe Benefit Funds (together, "Plaintiffs") to strike Defendant Larry Brummet's jury demand. (Doc. 63.) Mr. Brummet responds in opposition. (Doc. 70.) For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motion.

I. Background

This case arises under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. ("ERISA"). Plaintiffs are funds benefitting participants alleged to be in Mr. and Ms. Brummet's employ. (Doc. 44, Pl. Am. Compl., ¶ 4.) Plaintiffs allege that both Defendants failed to adequately fund the plans pursuant to their obligations under the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") entered into by the parties. Mr. Brummet denies that he employs participants in the Plaintiff funds and also denies that he was a party to the CBA, which he claims was entered into by Ms. Brummet alone. (Doc. 70.)

Plaintiffs' amended complaint indicates that this action arises under 29 U.S.C. § 1145.*fn1 That statute (also known as section 515 of ERISA) "imposes a federal obligation on employers who contractually agree to contribute to employee pension plans." Sullivan v. Cox, 78 F.3d 322, 324 (7th Cir. 1996). In full, it states:

Every employer who is obligated to make contributions to a multiemployer plan under the terms of the plan or under the terms of a collectively bargained agreement shall, to the extent not inconsistent with law, make such contributions in accordance with the terms and conditions of such plan or such agreement.

29 U.S.C. § 1145. Despite the amended complaint's reliance on this statute, Plaintiffs do not mention it in the motion currently before the Court. Therein, they contend that their action arises solely under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3),*fn2 which, they claim, "'does not make any provision for a jury trial.'" (Doc. 63, p.1) (citing Turner v. CF & I Steel Corp., 770 F.2d 43, 46 (3rd Cir. 1985)). Mr. Brummet responds by pointing out that Plaintiffs' complaint specifically references 29 U.S.C. § 1145, and does not once refer to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). Further, Mr. Brummet argues that this case is appropriate for a jury because it presents legal - as opposed to exclusively equitable - issues, for two reasons: first, a threshold question here is whether Mr. Brummet was actually a party to the agreement; second, Plaintiffs seek monetary damages in addition to equitable remedies.

II. Analysis

As an initial matter, "[t]he Seventh Amendment does apply to actions enforcing statutory rights, and requires a jury trial upon demand, if the statute creates legal rights and remedies, enforceable in an action for damages in the ordinary courts of law." Curtis v. Loether, 415 U.S. 189, 194 (1974); see also Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412, 417 (1987). In examining the nature of statutorily created rights, courts generally first look to seventeenth-century actions brought in England prior to the merger of law and equity, and, second, "examine the remedy sought and determine whether it is legal or equitable in nature." This second inquiry is more significant. Tull, 481 U.S. at 417-418; International Fin. Servs. Corp. v. Chromas Techs. Canada, Inc., 356 F.3d 731, 735 (7th Cir. 2004).

The language in Plaintiffs' amended complaint leaves little doubt that this action arises at least in part under 29 U.S.C. § 1145, not, as Plaintiffs suggest, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) exclusively.*fn3 In fact, although 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) appears to provide a ground for some of Plaintiffs' requested relief, the amended complaint does not mention that subsection at all. At the very least, then, Plaintiffs' claims arise under both 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) and 29 U.S.C. § 1145. The relevant question is whether an action brought under those statutes is legal or equitable in nature.

The Seventh Circuit shed light on this issue in Bugher v. Feightner, 722 F.2d 1356 (7th Cir. 1983). There, plaintiffs - union trust funds - sought delinquent contributions due under a collective bargaining agreement with a defendant. The plaintiffs sued under both 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) and 29 U.S.C. § 185(a), the latter of which is a Labor-Management-Relations-Act provision providing a basis for plan trustees and unions to collect delinquent contributions owed to pension funds.*fn4 In ruling that the case presented legal, not merely equitable, issues, and thus gave rise to the right to demand a jury trial, the court determined that the plaintiff plan-trustees were third-party beneficiaries of the underlying collective bargaining agreement. These trustees, the court continued, effectively sought damages for breach of contract, and since breach-of-contract actions are traditionally actions at law, either party was entitled to demand a trial by jury. Bugher, 722 F.2d at 1358.*fn5

ThoughBugherconcerned a suit partially brought under 29 U.S.C. § 185(a), not 29 U.S.C. § 1145, the Seventh Circuit's holding is instructive. Like the plaintiffs in Bugher, Plaintiffs here seek damages and contribution for an employer's breach of a collective bargaining agreement, along with equitable relief under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). The contractual duty, in other words, that Plaintiffs seek to enforce in this case is parallel to the duty the Bugher plaintiffs sought to enforce via 29 U.S.C. § 185.

For this reason, Bugher's holding that ERISA contribution claims are legal, not equitable, in nature can be imported to the present context. Plaintiffs here, like the plaintiffs in Bugher, are effectively pursuing a breach-of-contract action against Defendants. Under Bugher's reasoning, it follows, this is a legal action that gives rise to the right to demand a trial by jury.*fn6

This outcome, it should be pointed out, is supported by the language of 29 U.S.C. § 1145'senforcement provision, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2). Specifically, subsection 1132(g)(2)(E) states that in 29 U.S.C. § 1145 actions where a fiduciary sues on behalf of a plan, a court shall award a plan, among all relief, "such other legal or equitable relief as the court deems appropriate." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2)(E) (emphasis added). This phrasing strongly suggests that Congress intended to provide a right to a jury trial to parties in 29 U.S.C. § 1145 suits. See Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575, 577 (1978) ("We can infer . . . that by providing specifically for 'legal' relief, Congress knew the significance of the term 'legal,' and intended that there would be a jury trial on demand."); see also Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 v. Keystone Heating & Air Conditioning, 934 F.2d 35 (3rd Cir. 1991) (using the "legal or equitable" language in 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2)(E) and the Supreme Court's holding in Lorillard to support a finding that the right to demand a jury trial accompanies an action brought under 29 U.S.C. § 1145). Thus, although Plaintiffs' complaint cites 29 ...

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