United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
C. HAMILTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to
Remand, filed April 8, 2018, (ECF No. 14) and Defendant Life
Insurance Company of North America's Motion to Dismiss,
filed April 30, 2018. (ECF No. 27). The matter is fully
briefed and ready for disposition.
December 13, 2017, Plaintiff filed a State Court Complaint in
the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri. In her State
Court Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that she is an employee of
Mercy and was insured under a group long term disability
(“LTD”) insurance policy (“The
Policy” issued by Cigna; that Plaintiff became totally
disabled as defined in the Police; that she applied for LTD
benefits under the Policy; and that her application for LTD
benefits was denied (ECF No. 6, ¶¶ 23-41). Count I
of the Complaint alleges Breach of Contract against Cigna.
Count II alleges Vexatious Refusal to Pau against Cigna.
Count III alleges tortious interference with Contract against
Mercy. Count IV alleges Civil Conspiracy against Mercy and
Cigna (jointly, “Defendants”). (ECF No. 6 at
alleges that: “Mercy is organized exclusively for
religious, charitable, scientific, and educational purposes
within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal
Revenue Code” (“IRC”); the “Mercy
Articles of Incorporation require that Mercy operate to serve
the mission of the Roman Catholic Church” and that it
operate “to evidence the policies of the Sisters of
Mercy and Mercy Health Ministry”; “Mercy adheres
to and is guided by the Ethical and Religious Directives for
Catholic Health Services of the National Conference of
Catholic Bishiops”; in promotional material Mercy
describes its values to include “wisely us[ing] our
talents and resources to strengthen Mercy as a ministry of
the Church”; Mercy is associated with the Roman
Catholic Church as well as the Sisters of Mercy, as defined
by [The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29
U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq.
(“ERISA”)], as it shares common religious bonds
and convictions of the Church”; “Mercy is
‘associated with a church or a convention or
association of churches'”; and Mercy's articles
of incorporation and values “affirm its obligation to
act in conformity with the teachings of the Catholic church
and the Sisters of Mercy.” (ECF No. 6, ¶¶
4-13, 17-19). The Complaint further alleges that, based on
the foregoing, the LTD Plan at issue is a “church
plan” as defined by ERISA; that, therefore, the LTD
Plan is exempt from ERISA pursuant to 29 U.S.C. §
1003(b) and the “contract is subject to the law of the
State of Missouri.” On March 9, 2018, Cigna timely
removed Plaintiff's cause of action to the United States
Court for the Eastern District of Missouri based on federal
question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1331 On March 12,
2018, Defendant Mercy Health Services, LLC consented to
Removal. (ECF No. 11). In its Notice of Removal, Defendant
Cigna asserted that the Policy was issued in connection with
an “employee welfare benefit plan” as that term
is defined in ERISA 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1), and that the
Policy is therefore subject to ERISA and the Plaintiff's
state law claims are preempted by ERISA. (ECF No. 1,
¶¶ 10, 15). In support of the assertion that the
policy is subject to ERISA the Notice of Removal states that
the policy application states that ‘Mercy reported that
it filed ERISA reports” and “provided an ERISA
plan name and ERISA plan numbers in conjunction with its
short term and long term disability policies”; that an
ERISA coverage worksheet which Mercy provided to Cigna
reflects that “the policyholder” is not a
religious organization or hospital; and that Mercy “has
been filing ERISA Form 5500s” for the LTD Plan since
“at least 2009.” (ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 11-14).
April 8, 2018, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Remand (ECF No.
14) reasserting her claim that her cause of action is not
preempted by ERISA and that Removal was not proper because
the LTD Plan is a church plan, and therefore the Court does
not have federal question jurisdiction; that Mercy has argued
in prior cases that its pension plan is exempt from ERISA
because Mercy is controlled by and associated with the
Catholic Church; that the doctrine of judicial estoppel
prevents Mercy from asserting a claim in the instant matter
that is inconsistent with its claim in prior proceedings that
ERISA did not apply. (ECF No. 15, at 5).In opposition to the
Motion to Remand, Defendants contend that ERISA preempts the
allegations of Plaintiff's Complaint, and therefore, the
Court has jurisdiction (ECF No. 26). Specifically, Defendants
argue that Mercy Health made clear elections to make its LTD
Plan an ERISA plan pursuant to 26 U.S.C § 410(d). (ECF
No. 26, 9-10). On April 30, 2018, Defendant Cigna filed a
Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6) (ECF No. 27) and Defendant Mercy Health Services,
LLC joined. (ECF No. 30). The Motion to Dismiss also argues
that Plaintiff's claims are preempted by the provisions
of ERISA. (ECF No. 28).
25, 2018, the Court issued a Memorandum and Order holding
Plaintiff's Motion to Remand and Defendants' Motion
to Dismiss in abeyance. (ECF No. 43). The Court determined
with regard to judicial estoppel, that the status of
Mercy's pension plan as a Church Plan is not determinate
of whether the LTD Plan at issue is also a Church Plan, and
the Defendants are not estopped from arguing that the LTD
Plan is not a Church Plan. (ECF No. 43 at 17). The Court
further determined that the Defendants have not effectively
opted the LTD Plan into ERISA pursuant to § 410(d). The
Court also determined that “Defendants have the burden
to establish that the…LTD Plan is not a church plan
and thus subject to ERISA” and found that it did not
have sufficient verified facts before it to determine whether
or not the LTD plan is a church plan, and therefore, whether
or not it is exempt from ERISA. (ECF No. 43, at 25). The
Court granted the parties thirty (30) days to conduct
discovery for the limited purpose of developing a record
relevant to whether the LTD Plan is a church plan. (ECF No.
43 at 26).
25, 2018, and on October 22, 2018, the Parties were granted
extensions of time to conduct their limited discovery. (ECF
Nos. 45, 47). On November 28, 2018, the Plaintiff filed her
supplemental memorandum with the court. (ECF No. 50). On
November 30, 2018, Defendants asked for additional time to
file their supplemental memorandum. (ECF Nos. 51, 53). On
December 28, 2018, Defendant Mercy filed its supplemental
memorandum. (ECF No. 55). On January 2, 2019, the Court
granted Defendant Cigna leave to join Defendant Mercy's
memorandum. (ECF No. 57).
district courts have original jurisdiction over “all
civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or
treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331.
“The presence or absence of federal-question
jurisdiction is governed by the ‘well pleaded complaint
rule,' which provides that federal jurisdiction exists
only when a federal question is presented on the face of the
plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.”
Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482, U.S. 386, 392
(1987)(citation omitted). See also, Gaming Corp.
of America v. Dorsey & Whitney, 88 F.3d 536, 542
(8th Cir. 1996) (“The ‘well-pleaded complaint
rule' requires that a federal cause of action must be
stated on the face of the complaint before the defendant may
remove the action based on federal question
jurisdiction.”) (quoting Caterpillar, 482 U.S.
at 392). Because federal law provides that Plaintiffs are the
“masters of the complaint, ” plaintiffs
“may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance
on state law.” Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 392.
is however an exception to the well pleaded complaint rule in
cases where “‘a federal statute wholly displaces
the state-law cause of action through complete
preemption.'” Hall v. USAble Life, 774
F.Supp.2d 953, 955 (E.D. Ark. 2011)(quoting, Aetna
Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207-8 (2004)).
“ERISA's civil enforcement provision, 29 U.S.C.
§ 1132(a), has such preemptive force that it converts an
ordinary state common law complaint into one stating a
federal claim.” Hall, 774 F.Supp.2d at 955.
as otherwise expressly provided by Congress, civil actions
for which the district courts of the United States have
original jurisdiction may be removed from State court to
federal district court. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441(a), 1446.
A party opposing removal may file a motion to remand to State
Court. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). The party removing and
opposing remand has the burden of establishing federal
jurisdiction. See In re Business Men's Assur. Co. of
America, 992 F.2d 181, 183 (8th Cir. 1983)(per curiam).
Upon considering a motion to remand, a district court is
“required to resolve all doubts about federal
jurisdiction in favor of remand.” Id.(citing
Steel Valley Auth. V. Union Switch & Signal
Div., 809 F.2d 1006, 1010 (3rd Cir. 1987)). See
also, Transit Cas. Co. v. Certain Unterwriters at Lloyds of
London, 119 F.3d 619, 625 (8th Cir. 1997).
“[C]auses of action within the scope of the civil
enforcement provisions of [ERISA] § 502(a) [may be]
removable to federal court.” Aetna Health, 542
U.S. at 209 (quoting Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v.
Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 66 (1987)).
Eighth Circuit in Chronister v. Baptist Health, 443
F.3d 648 (8th Cir. 2006) held that, in a case removed from state
court based on federal question jurisdiction pursuant to
ERISA, if the employee benefit plan at issue is a
“church plan” within the meaning of ERISA, a
federal question does not exist, and the court
“‘must remand the matter to state
court.'” Chronister, 443 F.3d at
651(quoting, Lown v. Cont'l Cas. Co., 238 F.3d
543, 547 (4th Cir. 2001)). If the employee benefit plan at
issue is not exempt, ...