But Do You Really Want To In All Cases?
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) was the largest statute ever passed by Congress at the time it was enacted and has only grown further since then. In the 44 years that have followed its effective date, so too have grown the number of opinions, and changes in direction, among the courts.
There is little question that ERISA functions unlike many other statutes. It has one of the broadest preemption clauses of any federal statute. 29 U. S. C. § 1144(a). It has its own unique enforcement provisions in section 502 (29 U.S.C. § 1132) that are deceptively short but have spawned four decades of disputes over what may or may not be a topic of litigation and the available damages. As the Supreme Court has long recognized, the statute’s enforcement provisions are a unique marriage of the common law of trusts and Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185. See, e.g., Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41 (1987); Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989). Particularly as to benefit claims, ERISA not only encourages but requires claims procedures that include mechanism for review. 29 U.S.C. § 1133; 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1.
So, given all that, can the employer or plan require arbitration of ERISA claims? Which ones? When? And might they really want to?
Only seven years after ERISA’s passage, the Ninth Circuit addressed at least some of these questions in Amaro v. Continental Can Co., 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984). The Amaro case involved an interesting fact pattern. There, a unionized employer laid off a number of employees in the years following ERISA’s passage. The union grieved the terminations under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) which, as most do, culminated in binding arbitration. The arbitrator concluded that the layoffs were precipitated by market conditions and denied the grievance under the CBA. Unhappy with this result, the employees filed suit under section 510 of ERISA (29 U.S.C. § 1140 – ERISA’s anti-retaliation provision), contending that the discharges (and those following the period covered by the arbitration decision) were motivated by a desire to prevent them from accumulating years of service under the plan. Continue Reading