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Behrens v. BMO Harris Bank, N.A.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

July 31, 2017

BYRON BEHRENS, Plaintiff,
v.
BMO HARRIS BANK, N.A., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HON. JORGE ALONSO United States District Judge

         Defendant BMO Harris Bank, N.A., removed this case from the Circuit Court of Cook County, and plaintiff Byron Behrens has filed a motion to remand, contending that there is no basis for federal jurisdiction. For the following reasons, the Court grants plaintiff's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Byron Behrens worked for BMO Harris Bank, N.A., (“BMO”) for more than thirty years, from mid-1969 until mid-2004, when he retired from his position as “vice president of the probate division/estate administration.” (Notice of Removal, Ex. 1, Compl. ¶ 26, ECF No. 1-1.) After retiring, plaintiff requested to return to work on a part-time basis, and in July 2004, he signed an independent contractor agreement with BMO. (See Id. ¶¶ 40-42.) As an independent contractor, he lacked “direct signing authority on behalf of” BMO and “generally did not take new accounts for administration, ” but he assumed largely the same employment duties he had performed before he retired. (See Id. ¶¶ 44-48.) Plaintiff remained at BMO as an independent contractor for twelve years under three successive independent contractor agreements. Plaintiff's final employment with BMO ended in February of 2016.

         Plaintiff originally filed this case in state court, alleging that during his post-retirement employment with BMO he was mischaracterized as an independent contractor, causing damages in the form of lost compensation and employee benefits. Based on these allegations, plaintiff asserts claims against BMO for violating the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, common-law intentional mischaracterization as an independent contractor, and unjust enrichment. Moreover, plaintiff has brought this action on behalf of a putative class of similarly situated people asserting the same claims. BMO removed the action to this Court, claiming that this Court has federal question jurisdiction because plaintiff seeks damages partially based on amounts BMO should have contributed on his behalf under two retirement benefit plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). BMO argues that the complete preemption power of ERISA engulfs plaintiff's claims, even though plaintiff pleads only state-law claims.

         Plaintiff moves to remand, arguing that he is seeking merely “the value of the contributions that [BMO] would have made on [Behrens's] behalf to the plan had he been properly classified, but does not, and could not, bring a claim under ERISA § 502[1] for benefits.” (Mot. to Remand at 2, ECF No. 17.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A state-court defendant may remove a civil action to a federal court if the federal court has original jurisdiction over the action. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a) (“Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants.”). Federal courts have original jurisdiction of an action either based on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, or if the civil action “aris[es] under the . . . laws . . . of the United States” pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The removing party bears the burden of proving that federal jurisdiction is proper. Walker v. Trailer Transit, Inc., 727 F.3d 819, 825 (7th Cir. 2013).

         II. ANALYSIS

         BMO argues that this Court has jurisdiction and its removal of this case was proper because (a) ERISA completely preempts plaintiff's claims and (b) plaintiff's state law claims raise a federal question because he seeks FICA contributions under the Internal Revenue Code.

         A. COMPLETE PREEMPTION UNDER ERISA

         To determine whether removal is proper based on §1441(a), federal courts generally apply the “well-pleaded complaint” rule, which provides that “a defendant may not [generally] remove a case to federal court unless the plaintiff's complaint establishes that the case ‘arises under' federal law.” Franchise Tax Bd. of Cal. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust for S. Cal., 493 U.S. 1, 9-10 (1983). However, “‘when the federal statute completely pre-empts the state-law cause of action, a claim which comes within the scope of that cause of action, even if pleaded in terms of state law, is in reality based on federal law.' ERISA is one of these statutes.” Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 208 (2004) (quoting Beneficial Nat. Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 8 (2003)).

         Under ERISA § 502, an action may be brought “by a participant or beneficiary . . . to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the plan.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). The Supreme Court has articulated a two-pronged test for determining whether ERISA § 502 completely preempts a plaintiff's state-law claim: “if an individual, at some point in time, could have brought his claim under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), and where there is no other independent legal duty that is ...


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