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United Steel, Paper, and Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Industrial & Svc. Workers Internat'l Union, AFL-CIO-CLC v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.: US District Court : ERISA | CIVIL PROCEDURE - venue transferred to district court; present isn't past; statute clear; party waiver in past irrelevant

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
08-CV-2449(JMR/RLE)
United Steel, Paper, and )
Forestry, Rubber, )
Manufacturing, Energy, )
Allied Industrial and )
Service Workers )
International Union, ) ORDER
AFL-CIO-CLC et al. )
)
v. )
)
Pension Benefit Guaranty )
Corporation )
Plaintiff, United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber,
Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers
International Union, AFL-CIO-CLC (USW), once represented union
workers at Thunderbird Mining Company (Thunderbird) in Eveleth,
Minnesota. In 2003, Thunderbird went broke. Upon Thunderbirds
bankruptcy, defendant, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
(PBGC), assumed administration of its pension plan. The USW is
presently before the Court challenging certain benefit
determinations by the PBGC.
The Court has not reached the underlying dispute. Defendant
moves to dismiss this suit, or, alternatively, transfer venue
pursuant to statute. Plaintiff objects. The Court finds the venue
statutes plain language clear. Accordingly, the Court grants
defendants motion, in part. This matter is hereby transferred to
the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
1Shutdown benefits are early retirement pension benefits
which vest upon a plants permanent shutdown. (Def.s Mem. Supp.
Def.s Mot. 3. n. 4.)
2
I. Background
There are no facts in dispute. The single question is the
interpretation of ERISAs venue provisions.
Congress created the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
under Title IV of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of
1974 (ERISA). 29 U.S.C. 1301-1461. The PBGC guarantees
pension benefits to participants when pension plans terminate. The
PBGC is based in Washington, D.C., and issues its benefit
determinations and administrative appeals decisions therefrom.
In 1999, Thunderbird negotiated its pension agreement with the
USW. Under its terms, Thunderbird sponsored an employee pension
plan covered by Title IV of ERISA. After Thunderbirds 2003
bankruptcy, the PBGC moved to assume trusteeship of the pension
plan pursuant to 29 U.S.C. 1342. On August 19, 2004, the
Honorable Michael J. Davis (USDC, D. Minn.) granted PBGCs motion,
declaring it the plans statutory trustee, and setting July 24,
2003, as the plans termination date.
Subsequent to the plans termination, between December 21,
2006, and May 15, 2007, PBGCs administrative determinations
governed participant benefits. The USW claims the PBGC wrongly
denied plan participants their guaranteed shutdown benefits.1 On
May 31, 2007, the USW administratively appealed these
2These persons reside primarily in Minnesota. (Pl.s Mem.
Opp. Def.s Mot. 1.)
3
determinations. On November 30, 2008, the PBGC appeals board found
the plan participants were not entitled to shutdown benefits.
On June 17, 2008, USW filed suit on behalf of 253 former
Thunderbird employees in the U.S. District Court for the District
of Minnesota. On November 4, 2008, USW filed an amended complaint
adding eleven individually named plaintiffs.2 USW seeks a
declaratory judgment that plan participants are entitled to the
denied benefits; enforcement of employees rights; and damages.
(Am. compl. 21-25.) On September 18, 2008, defendants moved,
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
for dismissal or transfer of venue to the U.S. District Court for
the District of Columbia under ERISAs venue provision. Plaintiff
suggests the provision should be broadly interpreted, and asks that
the case remain in Minnesota.
II. Discussion
A. Venue Statute
The USW is authorized to bring this action on behalf of plan
participants pursuant to ERISA 4003(f)(1). ERISA contains its
own venue provision which places ERISA actions in the appropriate
court. 29 U.S.C. 1303(f)(2). The appropriate court is
defined as:
(A) the United States district court before which
proceedings under section 4041 or 4042 [29 U.S.C.
4
1341 or 1342] are being conducted,
(B) if no such proceedings are being conducted, the
United States district court for the judicial
district in which the plan has its principal
office, or
(C) the United States District Court for the District
of Columbia.
Defendants argue, and the Court agrees, that where there are
no current proceedings under 1341 or 1342, and the plans
principal office has closed, the statute compels venue in the
District of Columbia. Plaintiff, however, claims the statute
permits venue in Minnesota because termination proceedings occurred
in this state, and the plans principal office was based in
Minnesota. (Pl.s Mem. Opp. Def.s Mot. 5.) In other words,
plaintiff argues 29 U.S.C. 1303(f)(2)(A) and (B) include events
which occurred in the past, as well as at present. Plaintiffs
theory is flawed, because the statute is plain on its face.
The Court declines to torture the statutes clear language
explicitly referring to the court before which proceedings . . .
are being conducted, and to declare - by judicial fiat - the
statute really means the court before which proceedings once were
conducted, but are now long-concluded.
It is well established that we commence any statutory
interpretation with the statutes plain language, and [w]here the
language is plain, we need inquire no further. United States v.
Cacioppo, 460 F.3d 1012, 1016 (8th Cir. 2006). Title 29 U.S.C.
1303(f)(2)(A) and (B) uses the present tense three times in
5
defining appropriate court. Both parties agree Minnesotas
pension plan termination proceedings concluded more than four years
ago. And both parties concede the plain language would place this
matter in the District of Columbia.
Plaintiff argues, however, the statute permits filing a suit
where past proceedings occurred, or where a former principal office
was located. Plaintiff supports this argument by reference to two
district court decisions which accepted a past tense
interpretation of ERISAs venue statute. See, e.g., Adey v.
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., No. 2:06-cv-1421, 2007 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 7705, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 2, 2007); Garland v. U.S. Airways,
No. 05-140, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92803, at *18 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 21,
2006).
Plaintiff focuses on the Garland courts venue analysis which
asked whether termination proceedings took place or were taking
place in the Western Pennsylvania judicial district. Garland,
2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92803, at *18 (dismissing plaintiffs ERISA
claim where plaintiff did not bring suit in an appropriate
court). Next, plaintiff cites the Adey decision, where a Western
District of Pennsylvania court transferred an ERISA suit to the
Northern District of West Virginia, because the plan had been
terminated in that district. Adey, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7705, at
*4. The Adey court decided that interests of justice favored
venue in West Virginia, as many plaintiffs lived in West Virginia,
6
and venue in Washington, D.C., would impose travel costs on them.
Plaintiff argues that, like the Adey plaintiffs, former
Thunderbird employees have an interest in the prosecution and
outcome of this proceeding. (Pl.s Mem. Opp. Def.s Mot. 17.)
Indeed, plaintiff notes it recently added eleven individual
plaintiffs to highlight this proceedings local nature. Plaintiff
concludes requiring travel to Washington, D.C., would constitute
an untenable burden on their right to observe, monitor, and
participate in this proceeding. (Id.)
Defendants reply, and proffer case law interpreting the ERISA
venue provision literally to cases in the present tense. See,
e.g., Stephens v. U.S. Airways Group, Inc., No. 4:00-cv-144 (N.D.
Ohio June 28, 2007) (transferring an action to the District of
Columbia under 29 U.S.C. 1303(f)(2) because the plan terminated
four years previously, and the principal office no longer existed).
Neither party offers, nor has this Court found, any Eighth Circuit
law on point.
The Court finds arguments based on the individuals location
entitled to little weight. This dispute is, ultimately, a
contractual interpretation matter, addressing whether the PBGCs
determinations were arbitrary and capricious under the
Administrative Procedure Act. At oral argument, plaintiffs
counsel could not deny its resolution will not require witness
testimony, as this is a legal dispute. As such, notwithstanding
7
the possibility that plaintiff-members might like to see the
proceedings, counsel points to no need to do so, nor indicates
difficulties which might arise from their absence.
Even if plaintiff-witnesses were to become necessary - a
highly unlikely prospect - travel costs are a diminished factor.
Plaintiffs can proffer video testimony, lawyers can meet via
teleconferencing, and parties can rely on email and fax machines to
send documents, regardless whether parties are two blocks, or two
thousand miles, apart. These are certainly not jury proceedings
which might argue for the immediacy of a persons presence.
Plaintiff goes beyond its District Court cases and notes the
PBGC argued for a contrary interpretation of this venue statute in
the past. It cites PBGCs Adey memorandum, noting the PBGC argued
venue was possible where the plan had its principal office, even
though the plan at issue had been terminated, and the PBGC assumed
plan administration. Defendant counters by arguing its waiver or
partial waiver of a discretionary venue objection in another case
has no bearing on the case at bar. The Court agrees; PBGCs past
actions do not create precedent for this Court.
Finally, plaintiff complains that a literal reading of
ERISAs venue statute leads to an absurd and unjust result. See
Public Citizen v. U.S. Dept Of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 453-55
(1989) (noting that where a statutes literal reading compel[s] an
odd result, the court must search for other evidence of
3 Finally, the Court notes the ultimate absurdity would be for
it to accept plaintiffs argument, and eviscerate the statutes
entire venue-establishing scheme.
8
congressional intent). According to plaintiff, under ERISA
4003(f), 29 U.S.C. 1303(f), employers and plan administrators may
sue for termination before PBGC assumes a plans trusteeship.
Accordingly, the statute allows employers to file suit wherever the
plans principal office is located. Plaintiff notes, however, that
individual plan participants may only file suit after termination
proceedings have concluded and the principal office has closed.
Thus, while employers may sue in the principal offices district,
individual participants must sue in the District of Columbia.
Despite plaintiffs protests, the Court does not find this
discrepancy an absurd result. Congress created ERISA; it did not
exist at Common Law. Congress defined the rights it created,
including prescribing that venue may be placed where a principal
office exists or termination proceedings are ongoing.
Simultaneously, it decided that where the PBGC has assumed
trusteeship, and a plans principal office has closed, suits must
be located in the District of Columbia. This distinction is not an
absurd result. And Congress certainly knew when it created ERISA
that this is a nation with a vast geographic spread. As such,
Congress understood that terminated, case-concluded ERISA plans
would have their issued aired in the District of Columbia, whether
the plan had been based in Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, or Minnesota.3
9
Plaintiff asks the Court to bend the rules of grammar,
statutory interpretation, and logic to find the present tense
includes the past. The Court well-respects the wisdom of its
colleagues sitting in other District Courts, but also recognizes
that as they are not bound by his decisions, he is not bound by
theirs. This Court must follow the Eighth Circuits instructions
[w]here the language is plain, we need inquire no further.
United States v. Cacioppo, 460 F.3d 1012, 1016 (8th Cir. 2006).
These pension plan termination proceedings have concluded. The
plans principal office has closed. These are not recent events
the PBGC has governed the plan from Washington, D.C., for more than
four years. Accordingly, the statute commands venue in the U.S.
District Court for the District of Columbia.
B. Cure or Waiver of Defects
Having found a defect in venue, the Court is again instructed
by statute. The district court of a district in which is filed a
case laying venue in the wrong division or district shall dismiss,
or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any
district or division in which it could have been brought. 28
U.S.C. 1406(a). Here, the District Court for the District of
Columbia is clearly a venue in which it could have been brought.
Accordingly, the Court finds it in the interest of justice to
transfer the case to that District, pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
1406(a).
10
III. Conclusion
IT IS ORDERED that:
1. Defendants motion to dismiss is denied.
2. Defendants motion to transfer venue to the U.S. District
Court for the District of Columbia is granted.
3. The Clerk of Court is hereby directed to transfer venue of
this matter to the U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia.
Dated: March 11, 2009
S/JAMES M. ROSENBAUM
JAMES M. ROSENBAUM
United States District Judge
 

 
 
 

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