Williams v. Ascension Health Long-Term Disability (LTD) Plan
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER denying 5 Motion to Dismiss. IS THEREFORE ORDERED this 28th day of April, 2017, that defendant's motion to dismiss is DENIED and that defendant's motion to transfer the case is GRANTED. The Clerk is directed to transfer this case forthwith to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Signed by Chief Judge J. Thomas Marten on 4/28/2017. (sz)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
SUSAN G. WILLIAMS,
Case No. 16-1361-JTM
ASCENSION HEALTH LONG-TERM
DISABILITY (LTD) PLAN,
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Before the court is defendant Ascension Health LTD Plan’s Motion to Dismiss, or in the
Alternative, to Transfer Venue pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a),
respectively (Dkt. 5). For the reasons stated below, the court will transfer venue to the United
States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Ascension Health Alliance d/b/a Ascension, a Missouri nonprofit corporation, operates
numerous hospitals and other health care facilities (“Health Ministries”) in 24 states and the
District of Columbia. Ascension is incorporated in the state of Missouri, with its principal place
of business in St. Louis, Missouri. Ascension sponsors the Plan for eligible employees of its
affiliated Health Ministries, including eligible employees of Via Christi Health, an Ascension
Health Ministry based in Wichita, Kansas.
The Plan is an “employee welfare benefit plan” subject to ERISA. The Plan designates
Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc. (“Sedgwick”), as the Claims Administrator and
grants discretionary authority to Sedgwick to interpret and apply the provisions of the Plan.
Exhibit A, Plan, §§ 2.4, 2.8. Section 2.8 of the Plan provides, “The Claims Administrator shall
have discretionary authority to determine whether a Participant is eligible to receive or continue
to receive a Benefit under the Plan . . . .” The Plan includes a mandatory forum-selection clause,
which provides that any action “relating to or arising under the Plan” must be brought and
resolved in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Exhibit A, Plan,
Plaintiff Susan G. Williams was employed at Via Christi Hospital from 2000 to 2015.
Plaintiff was a participant in the Plan. She alleges that her disability began in late 2014, and
caused her to cease working as a nurse’s aide around May 2015. Plaintiff filed a claim for longterm disability benefits, and Sedgwick denied the claim on or around November 12, 2015.
Complaint, ¶ 15. Plaintiff appealed the decision, and Sedgwick affirmed its denial of Plaintiff’s
claim for long-term disability benefits on January 21, 2016. Complaint, ¶¶ 15, 17.
After her claim for long-term disability benefits was denied, Plaintiff filed suit against
Ascension in the state District Court of Sedgwick County, Kansas. Williams v. Ascension Health
Long-Term (LTD) Plan, Case No. 16CV1583. Defendant removed the lawsuit to this court.
Defendant now seeks dismissal or transfer based on the Plan’s forum-selection clause.
This court considers Ascension’s motion to dismiss as a motion to dismiss for improper
venue under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3). See Riley v. Kingsley Underwriting Agencies. Ltd., 969
F.2d 953, 956 (10th Cir. 1992). Forum-selection clauses are prima facie valid and should be
enforced unless the resisting party shows the clause is invalid due to fraud or overreaching or
that enforcement would be unreasonable and unjust under the circumstances. Riley, 969 F.2d at
957; M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off–Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 9 (1972). The plaintiff bears the burden
of establishing that venue in this district is proper and all factual disputes are resolved in
plaintiff’s favor. M.K.C. Equip. Co. v. M.A.I.L. Code, Inc., 843 F. Supp. 679, 682-83 (D. Kan.
1994). “Facts outside the pleadings may be properly considered on a motion to dismiss for
improper venue.” Concrete Indus., Inc. v. Dobson Bros. Const. Co., No. 06–1325, 2007 WL
1455979, at *1 (D. Kan. May 17, 2007) (citations omitted).
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), the court may transfer a case to any district or division where
it might have been brought for “the convenience of the parties and witnesses” and “in the interest
of justice.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). The decision whether to grant a motion to transfer is within the
sound discretion of the district court. See Scheidt v. Klein, 956 F.2d 963, 965 (10th Cir. 1992).
The court must give great weight to plaintiff’s choice of forum. KCJ Corp. v. Kinetic Concepts,
Inc., 18 F.Supp.2d 1212, 1214 (D.Kan.1998). However, when there is a valid forum-selection
clause, it “should be given controlling weight in all but the most exceptional cases”
notwithstanding the normal § 1404(a) analysis. Atl. Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for W.
Dist. of Tex., 134 S. Ct. 568, 581 (2013) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted).
Ascension first asks the court to dismiss plaintiff’s claims because the Plan requires that
this suit be filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Alternatively, Ascension asks the court to transfer the case to the United States District Court for
the Eastern District of Missouri under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Plaintiff argues the forum-selection
clause is unenforceable because it contradicts ERISA’s liberal venue provision, 29
U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2),1 and limits her right to bring suit in one venue. Additionally, she argues that
pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(D), plan fiduciaries must reject provisions that are contrary to
29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2) states: “Where an action under this subchapter is brought in a district court of the United
States, it may be brought in the district where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a
defendant resides or may be found, and process may be served in any other district where a defendant resides or may
the spirit of ERISA – to protect the interests of the plan participants and beneficiaries. The court
finds plaintiff’s arguments unpersuasive.
The majority of courts to consider the question have held that forum-selection clauses are
not inconsistent with § 1132(e)(2) or any other provision of ERISA. See Smith v. AEGON Cos.
Pension Plan, 769 F.3d 922 (6th Cir. 2014); Mroch v. Sedgwick Claims Mgmt. Servs., Inc., No.
14-cv-4087, 2014 WL 7005003 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 10, 2014); Rodriguez v. PepsiCo Long Term
Disability Plan, 716 F. Supp. 2d 855 (N.D. Cal. 2010); Klotz v. Xerox Corp., 519 F. Supp. 2d
430 (S.D.N.Y. 2007). But see Harris v. BP Corp. N. Am. Inc, No. 15-CV-10299, 2016 WL
8193539, at *8 (N.D. Ill. July 8, 2016) (finding forum-selection clause contravenes the strong
public policy set forth in ERISA); Nicolas v. MCI Health & Welfare Plan, No. 501, 453 F. Supp.
2d 972 (E.D. Tex. 2006); Wellmark, Inc. v. Deguara, No. 4:02-CV-40534, 2003 WL 21254637
(S.D. Iowa May 28, 2003). This court joins the majority position for the following reasons:
1) Congress did not specifically prohibit forum-selection clauses in ERISA plans;
2) the forum-selection clause removes any uncertainty about where jurisdiction lies, thus
avoiding confusion regarding venue selection;
3) the forum-selection clause allows one federal court to oversee the administration of
the Plan and gain special familiarity with the Plan, furthering ERISA’s goal of
establishing a uniform administrative scheme;
4) the interests of all participants and beneficiaries are benefitted by bringing uniformity
to ERISA decisions; and
5) forum-selection clauses in ERISA plans promote ERISA’s goal of providing a lowcost administration of employee benefit plans.
The court finds the forum-selection clause enforceable for two reasons. First, forumselection clauses are presumptively valid. Second, Williams has not argued that the clause was
induced by fraud, that the Eastern District of Missouri federal court would ineffectively or
unfairly handle the case, or that the inconvenience to her is unjust or unreasonable. The only
argument Williams might have is that litigating in Missouri would be inconvenient. While this
may be true, mere inconvenience alone is insufficient to avoid enforcement of the clause.
Mozingo v. Trend Pers. Servs., No. 10-4149-JTM, 2011 WL 3794263, at *2 (D. Kan. Aug. 25,
2011), aff’d, 504 F. App’x 753 (10th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). Williams would need to
show that litigating in Missouri would be so difficult as to practically deprive her of her day in
court. But because ERISA cases are normally decided by cross-motions and without the need for
trial or discovery, Williams cannot overcome the strong presumption in favor of enforcing the
Finally, because Williams would likely incur additional costs should this court dismiss
the case rather than transfer venue, the court will deny the Motion to Dismiss, but will grant the
Motion to Transfer Venue. Conte v. Ascension Health, No. 11-12074, 2011 WL 4506623, at *1
(E.D. Mich. Sept. 28, 2011) (majority of courts transfer the action rather than dismiss it outright
when faced with similar motions).
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED this 28th day of April, 2017, that defendant’s motion
to dismiss is DENIED and that defendant’s motion to transfer the case is GRANTED. The Clerk
is directed to transfer this case forthwith to the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Missouri.
s/ J. Thomas Marten
Chief United States District Judge
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