Aligning itself with other circuit courts that have ruled on the issue, the Ninth Circuit recently held that ERISA does not bar forum selection clauses in benefit plans.  The background of the case and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling are straightforward.  Plaintiff filed a putative class action in the Northern District of California challenging the management of Wells Fargo’s 401(k) plan.  Wells Fargo moved to transfer venue to the District of Minnesota under the 401(k) plan’s forum selection clause.  The California district court granted the motion to transfer and Plaintiff sought a writ of mandamus to stop the transfer.

The Ninth Circuit unequivocally affirmed the transfer.  The Court reasoned that the permissive “may” in ERISA’s venue provision provides three options for a proper venue but mandates none of them.  Moreover, policy considerations support permitting contractual forum selection clauses: the clause at issue does not impinge on “ready access” to the courts (instead, it mandates it) and confining plan-related lawsuits to one jurisdiction furthers ERISA’s goal of uniform administration of benefit plans.

While the Ninth Circuit is certainly not the first to enforce a benefit plan’s forum selection clause (indeed, the Court recognized “near universal” agreement on the issue), this case is significant in two respects.  First, it dampens recent efforts in the lower courts to challenge forum selection clauses in ERISA plans.  It chips away further at prior case law disfavoring such clauses.  Echoing its conclusions in Dorman v. Charles Schwab – a 2019 decision enforcing a mandatory arbitration clause in an ERISA plan – the Court here classified judicial skepticism of forum selection clauses as a “relic” of a past era.

The case is Becker v. United States District Court, No. 20-72805, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 9495 (9th Cir. Apr. 1, 2021).

Print:
Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Stacey C.S. Cerrone Stacey C.S. Cerrone

Stacey C.S. Cerrone is a principal and office litigation manager of the New Orleans, Louisiana office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a core member of the Employee Benefits and the ERISA Complex Litigation practice teams. Her nationwide practice focuses on the defense of…

Stacey C.S. Cerrone is a principal and office litigation manager of the New Orleans, Louisiana office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a core member of the Employee Benefits and the ERISA Complex Litigation practice teams. Her nationwide practice focuses on the defense of complex ERISA class actions filed against public and private single employer ERISA plan sponsors and fiduciaries, as well as multi-employer plans and fiduciaries and ERISA plan services providers. Stacey litigates a wide variety of class action claims, including 401(k) fee claims, stock drop claims, “church plan” and “government plan” claims, health and welfare plan claims, and ERISA Section 510 claims.  She also litigates ERISA benefit claims and claims involving non-ERISA plans.

Photo of Lindsey H. Chopin Lindsey H. Chopin

Lindsey H. Chopin is a principal in the New Orleans, Louisiana, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a member of the firm’s ERISA Complex Class Action, Employee Benefits and Class Action groups.

Lindsey focuses her practice on the defense of complex ERISA class-actions…

Lindsey H. Chopin is a principal in the New Orleans, Louisiana, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a member of the firm’s ERISA Complex Class Action, Employee Benefits and Class Action groups.

Lindsey focuses her practice on the defense of complex ERISA class-actions filed against public and private single employer ERISA plan sponsors and fiduciaries, as well as multi-employer plans and fiduciaries and ERISA plan services providers. She has litigated a wide variety of class action claims, including 401(k) fee claims, stock drop claims, defined benefit mortality assumption claims, “church plan” and “government plan” claims, health and welfare plan claims, and ERISA Section 510 claims. Lindsey also litigates ERISA benefit claims and claims involving non-ERISA plans.