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Court Prevents Pro Se Litigant From Seeking Jury Trial On ERISA Claim, Since Move Would Undermine Claims

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The pro se litigant sought a jury trial.

And, as the federal district court pointed out, a jury trial is a constitutionally guaranteed right – “In Suits at common law . . .” (as per the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).

But the pro se litigant’s claim was based on ERISA Section 502(a)(3), which – as the U.S. Supreme Court has pointed out – only allows for equitable remedies.

Accordingly, the federal district court – admitting that its decision “presses the limits of the pro se leniency standard – denied the motion for a jury trial, thereby – preventing the pro se litigant from proceeding to “sabotage his entire claim with one ill-advised move made on the eve of trial.”

That sums up the July 8, 2011 decision in Lockhart v. Southern Health Plan, Inc., Plan Administrator, No. 4:04-CV-6 (WLS), 2011 WL 2680430 (M.D. Ga. Jul. 8, 2011). 

A few other points made by the court include the following:

  • The Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution provides: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.” U.S. Const. amend. VII. The Supreme Court has “consistently interpreted the phrase ‘Suits at common law’ to refer to suits in which legal rights were to be ascertained and determined, in contradistinction to those where equitable rights alone were recognized, and equitable remedies were administered.” Granfinanciera, S.A. v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33, 41, 109 S.Ct. 2782, 106 L.Ed.2d 26 (1989) (emphasis in original). The Supreme Court has also “carefully preserved the right to trial by jury where legal rights are at stake.” Chauffeurs, Teamsters & Helpers, Local No. 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558, 565, 110 S.Ct. 1339, 108 L.Ed.2d 519 (1990). The Supreme Court has long instructed that “any seeming curtailment of the right to a jury trial should be scrutinized with the utmost care.” Dimick v. Schiedt, 293 U.S. 474, 486, 55 S.Ct. 296, 79 L.Ed. 603 (1935).
  • There is . . . a “statutory limitation of remedies available under ERISA § 502(a)(3) to those of an equitable nature,” and this statutory limitation “precludes extra-contractual remedies, which are legal in nature.” . . . . The Supreme Court has “construed [ERISA § 502(a)(3)(B) ] to authorize only ‘those categories of relief that were typically available in equity,’ and thus rejected a claim that … sought ‘nothing other than compensatory damages.’ ” Sereboff v. Mid Atl. Med. Servs., Inc., 547 U.S. 356, 361, 126 S.Ct. 1869, 164 L.Ed.2d 612 (2006) (quoting Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248, 256, 113 S.Ct. 2063, 124 L.Ed.2d 161 (1993)) (emphasis in original). To put it succinctly: “compensatory damages … do[ ] not qualify as ‘equitable relief’ under § 502(a)(3)(B).” Flint v. ABB, Inc., 337 F.3d 1326, 1330 (11th Cir.2003) (citing Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 210, 122 S.Ct. 708, 151 L.Ed.2d 635 (2002)).
  • Plaintiff pro se, apparently believing that it would bolster his chances of securing a civil jury trial, now asserts that his “claim is for compensatory damages.” . . . . Compensatory damages, however, are not an available remedy to his ERISA § 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) claim — his sole remaining claim. . . . Accordingly, were the Court to accept Plaintiff pro se’ s assertion regarding compensatory damages, the case would be subject to dismissal prior to trial for failure to state a claim that is entitled to relief.
  • Although the Court does not find it necessary to do so, given the Supreme Court’s repeated and unambiguous holdings that only equitable remedies are available under ERISA § 502(a)(3), the Court quickly addresses Plaintiff pro se’ s argument that the law-versus-equity analysis must consider where the action would have been brought in the courts of 18th Century England and the nature of the remedy sought. . . . Plaintiff pro se’s Count II seeks relief for “Defendants’ breach of fiduciary duties.” . . . . The Supreme Court holds that “an action by a trust beneficiary against a trustee for breach of fiduciary duty … [was] within the exclusive jurisdiction of courts of equity.” Chauffeurs, Teamsters & Helpers, Local No. 391 v. Terry,494 U.S. 558, 567, 110 S.Ct. 1339, 108 L.Ed.2d 519 (1990). Thus, in addition to the fact that the relief granted by Congress in ERISA § 502(a)(3) is solely equitable in nature, the type of action that Plaintiff pro se brings is solely equitable. He has no constitutional right to a civil jury trial, because his is not a “Suit[ ] at common law.” U.S. Const. amend. VII.

The full opinion is here.