Phillips v. Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada or Sun Life Financial (U.S.) Services Company, Inc. or Sun Life Capital Management (U.S.) LLC or Sun Life Administrators (U.S.), Inc.
OPINION AND ORDER granting 8 Plaintiff's Motion for Leave and denying as moot 4 Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Signed by Judge Douglas R. Cole on 9/7/21. (sct)
Case: 1:20-cv-00937-DRC Doc #: 13 Filed: 09/07/21 Page: 1 of 6 PAGEID #: 135
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
Case No. 1:20-cv-937
JUDGE DOUGLAS R. COLE
SUN LIFE ASSURANCE CO.
OF CANADA, et al.,
OPINION AND ORDER
This cause comes before the Court on Defendants’ (collectively “Sun Life”)
Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 4) and Plaintiff Paris Phillips’ Motion for Leave to File First
Amended Complaint (“Motion for Leave”) (Doc. 8). For the reasons set forth briefly
below, the Court GRANTS the Motion for Leave, and therefore DENIES the Motion
to Dismiss (Doc. 4), which was directed at the original Complaint (Doc. 3), as MOOT.
In granting Plaintiff leave to file the Amended Complaint, however, the Court is not
resolving, at this juncture, the question of whether Plaintiff is entitled to the jury
that he demands in that Amended Complaint. Defendants remain free to raise that
issue by way of a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 39 to strike the jury
demand. The Court need not resolve that issue now, though, and the relevant law is
sufficiently unsettled that a delay in resolution to allow for further development may
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This case started as an action in Ohio state court to recover insurance proceeds
on a group life insurance policy. Plaintiff asserted five causes of action: (1) declaratory
judgment; (2) civil conspiracy; (3) theft by deception; (4) state RICO; and (5) a
nebulously entitled “other claims.” (See Compl., Doc. 3).
Sun Life removed to federal court on the ground that, no matter what label
Plaintiff used, his claims actually arose under the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974, commonly called ERISA. That is because the insurance policy
was part of an employee welfare benefit plan, and any action seeking recovery of
benefits under such plans arises exclusively under ERISA, which preempts state law
claims seeking such benefits. (Not. of Rem., Doc. 1, at #2). Thus, Sun Life said, this
Court had jurisdiction under the combination of 28 U.S.C. § 1441(c) and 28 U.S.C.
§ 1331. Plaintiff did not oppose removal. 1
Sun Life also moved to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). (Doc. 4).
The grounds for that motion are not relevant in light of the Court’s disposition here.
That is because, in response to that motion, Plaintiff sought leave to file an Amended
Complaint (see Doc. 8), attaching the proposed Amended Complaint (see Doc. 8-1).
Among other things, the proposed Amended Complaint seeks to replace the
multiple claims asserted in the original complaint with a single ERISA count under
Of course, this Court has an independent obligation to assess its own subject-matter
jurisdiction, even if no party objects. The Court has done so and concludes that it has removal
jurisdiction here for the reasons set forth in the removal papers.
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29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). (Id. at #92). The new Complaint, unlike the original
Complaint, also includes a jury demand. (Id. at #93).
Sun Life opposed the Motion for Leave, but only on narrow grounds. (See Doc.
10). It did not object to the changes in the substance of the allegations or to the legal
claim set forth in the proposed amended complaint. Rather, it argued only that the
Court should strike the jury demand, citing a variety of case law from this Circuit
and others. Plaintiff responded, citing cases that he claims go the other way on the
jury-demand issue, and, not surprisingly, attempting to distinguish the cases on
which Sun Life relied.
At this juncture, both the Motion to Dismiss and the Motion for Leave are fully
briefed and before the Court for resolution.
As a general matter, when a plaintiff files an amended complaint, that moots
any motion to dismiss directed at the previous complaint. See, e.g., Caddell v.
Campbell, No. 1:19-cv-91, 2021 WL 2176597, at *5 (S.D. Ohio May 28, 2021); Buckeye
Ranch, Inc. v. Disability Rights Ohio, No. 2:18-cv-906, 2018 WL 6831531, at *2 (S.D.
Ohio Dec. 27, 2018); Hartman v. Reg., No. 1:06-CV-33, 2007 WL 915193, at *6 (S.D.
Ohio Mar. 26, 2007). Thus, if the Court grants leave to file the proposed Amended
Complaint here, that will moot Sun Life’s Motion to Dismiss.
As for the Motion for Leave, Sun Life does not object to the Amended Complaint
in terms of the substance of the claim set forth therein, or the other changes that
Plaintiff proposes making in the Complaint’s allegations. Rather, Sun Life’s objection
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goes solely to the jury demand. Thus, the Court will grant leave to Plaintiff to file his
proposed Amended Complaint. And, as noted immediately above, that moots the
Motion to Dismiss.
But that still leaves the question of the jury demand—which was the sole basis
on which Sun Life objected to Plaintiff filing the Amended Complaint. On the Court’s
review of the competing authorities, this appears, at least at initial glance, to be a
difficult issue on which the law is anything but settled.
As both parties appear to recognize, the right to a jury can arise either from
statute or from the Seventh Amendment. Plaintiff says he has a right to a jury under
both here. He claims that the ERISA provision at issue gives rise to an implied jury
right. He bases that argument largely on inferences that he draws from the “backdrop
of court decisions” (Doc. 11, #108) against which Congress enacted ERISA, as well as
the fact that, in the statute, Congress allows enforcement actions like the one here to
be brought not only in federal court, but also in state court, where Congress
understood plaintiffs would have a jury trial right. Thus, Plaintiff says, Congress
must have impliedly intended for actions under the provision here to be tried to a
jury, even when the trial is conducted in federal court. Separately, Plaintiff argues
that, independent of any statutory right to a jury trial, the Seventh Amendment
affords him such a right, as he is seeking solely money damages, which is a form of
legal relief, meaning this is a “suit at common law” for Seventh Amendment purposes.
Sun Life argues to the contrary on both fronts. It notes that the ERISA
provision here says nothing about a jury, and thus does not give rise to a jury right.
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As for the Constitution, Sun Life notes courts have interpreted the “suits at common
law” language to mean that the Seventh Amendment does not apply to equitable
claims, but rather only to legal ones. And ERISA, Sun Life notes, arises from the law
of trusts, which was a subject matter area assigned to the courts of equity, rather
than the courts of law, in the days of yore when those were two separate court
Ascertaining the precise contours of the right to a jury trial for a given claim
is no mean feat. See, e.g., Navarro v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 1:17-cv-406, 2021 WL
1169084 (S.D. Ohio March 29, 2021) (discussing that same issue in the context of
copyright law). And, as the parties point out in their respective briefs, courts
discussing that issue in the context of ERISA have arrived at varying results.
(Compare Opp. to Mot. for Leave to File, Doc. 10, #97–101 (citing cases), with Reply
in Supp. of Mot. for Leave to File, Doc. 11, #104–22 (citing cases)).
The most recent Sixth Circuit decision addressing the question arose in an odd
procedural setting. See In re Caudill, No. 20-3834, 2020 WL 6748203 (6th Cir. Oct.
30, 2020) (unsigned order). In Caudill, a lower court struck a jury trial demand, and
the plaintiff responded by seeking a writ of mandamus requiring the lower court to
reinstate that jury demand. The Sixth Circuit declined, noting that “[t]here is no clear
and indisputable right to a jury trial in actions for recovery of benefits under § 502.”
Id. at *1 (citing cases). While that seems initially helpful here, the Caudill court went
out of its way to say that it was not “definitively resolv[ing] Caudill’s claim that he is
entitled to a jury trial under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B) or the Seventh Amendment.” Id.
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at *2. Rather, the court held only that “his right to [such] relief is not clear and
indisputable,” meaning mandamus was not appropriate. Id. (quotation omitted).
Much as in Caudill, there is no need to resolve the issue in this case now.
Nothing changes in this matter, up until trial, if a jury right does, or does not, exist.
Accordingly, for the time being, and given the unsettled answer to that question, the
Court declines to reach it. That said, the parties remain free to raise the issue down
the road by way of a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 39. And,
acknowledging that the answer to the question may impact trial preparation, the
Court will address the matter well in advance of the actual trial. Intervening case
law developments between now and the time the Court reaches the issue, though,
may be helpful to the Court’s consideration. Accordingly, at least for now, the Court
For the above reasons, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motion for Leave (Doc.
8) and DENIES the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 4) as MOOT.
September 7, 2021
DOUGLAS R. COLE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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