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DeVooght v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

August 15, 2016




         Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) denied Scott Jeffrey DeVooght’s application for disability benefits pursuant to an employee insurance plan. DeVooght, proceeding without an attorney, sued MetLife and MetLife employees Joyce Allen and Ann Marie Hess (together “Defendants”), seeking unpaid disability benefits and damages based on various state law theories of contractual liability. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss DeVooght’s complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. ECF No. 19. They argue that (1) DeVooght’s state law claims are preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), see 29 U.S.C. § 1144; (2) Defendants Allen and Hess cannot be individually liable; and (3) DeVooght’s jury demand should be stricken. The Court GRANTS the motion, but notes that this does not dismiss DeVooght’s claims for unpaid benefits.


         1. Facts [1]

         As part of his former employment with L.B. Benefits, DeVooght was a participant in an employee welfare benefit plan (“the Plan”). Compl. ¶ 7. DeVooght became disabled in May 2011 and sought long-term disability benefits under the Plan. Compl. ¶ 8. MetLife denied DeVooght’s initial claim for benefits and his appeal. Compl. ¶ 9. Pursuant to the terms of the Plan, DeVooght could file a civil law suit seeking benefits within a specified time period that begins “60 days after the date Proof [of meeting conditions to receive benefits] is filed and ends 3 years after the date such Proof is required.” Defs.’ Mem. Ex. A at 46; Compl. ¶ 9.

         DeVooght emailed Defendants to clarify the deadline to file suit. Compl. ¶ 10. On August 4, 2014, Defendant Joyce Allen, an employee of MetLife, responded: “there is no dead line set for filing suit.” Compl. ¶ 10. In March 2015, DeVooght again inquired via email about the deadline to file a civil action challenging the denial of benefits. Compl. ¶ 11. Defendant Ann Marie Hess, also a MetLife employee, responded to DeVooght’s inquires that the deadline to file suit had passed, as it had been November 15, 2014. Compl. ¶ 11.

         2. MetLife’s motion to dismiss

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss DeVooght’s state law claims of bad faith, misrepresentation of material facts, and unfair insurance claim practices, which are the claims he lists on his pro se pleading. They contend that those state law claims are preempted by ERISA, specifically by 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). Defendants also argue that Defendants Allen and Hess may not be held individually liable under ERISA and therefore request that the claims against Allen and Hess be dismissed. Defendants also request that DeVooght’s demand for a jury trial be stricken because ERISA does not provide jury trial rights.


         1.Preemption under 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a)

         Federal preemption is an affirmative defense that flows from the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, and it “operates to prevent the enforcement of state laws that conflict with federal laws or regulations.” Fifth Third Bank ex rel. Tr. Officer v. CSX Corp., 415 F.3d 741, 745 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2). Whether a federal statute displaces a state law depends on whether Congress intended such a result. Id. at 746 (stating “congressional purpose” is “the ultimate touchstone” in a preemption analysis); see also Patriotic Veterans, Inc. v. Indiana, 736 F.3d 1041, 1046 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555, 565 (2009)). Congressional intent to preempt state law may manifest as express preemption, field preemption, or conflict preemption. Aux Sable Liquid Prods. v. Murphy, 526 F.3d 1028, 1033 (7th Cir. 2008). “Express preemption occurs when a federal statute explicitly states that it overrides state or local law.” Id.

         ERISA expressly preempts state law; section 1144(a) provides that ERISA “shall supersede any and all State laws insofar as they may . . . relate to any employee benefit plan.” 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). If an employee benefit plan is regulated by ERISA and the state law the plaintiff seeks to enforce “relates to” the plan, the claim is preempted. Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 47-48 (1987) (holding common law tortious breach of contract and bad faith claims preempted by § 1144); Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Mass., 471 U.S. 724, 735 (1985) (noting the broad scope of § 1144 preemption).

         a. The Plan is regulated by ERISA

         ERISA defines an employee welfare benefit plan as a plan “established or maintained by an employer . . . for the purpose of providing for its participants or their beneficiaries . . . benefits in the event of sickness, accident, disability, death or unemployment . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1). ...

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