Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review
When the United States Supreme Court faces the issue of fashioning a federal common law of ERISA, some district courts have suggested it will decide in favor of the right to a jury trial for benefits-due lawsuits. Legislative history indicates that Congress views the benefits-due lawsuit as contractual, realizing both state and federal courts treat them as contractual under pre-ERISA law, even LMRA, and expressly intended to increase the legal remedies under benefits-due lawsuits. Contractual legal remedies require the right to a jury trial. However, even in the absence of legislative history, constitutional provisions mandate a jury trial. This is because the participant-beneficiary's rights in the benefits-due lawsuit arise under a contractual theory and the participant-beneficiary generally seeks a legal remedy.
Until the correct decision comes down, some district courts refuse to strike the jury demand until the last possible moment in hopes that their circuit will finally revive its legal sensibilities. The federal circuit courts should desire to correct the legal error of denying jury trials for benefits-due lawsuits. Judges then could avoid appearing as despots permitting an employer, through its hand-picked plan administrator, vindictively denying a participant-beneficiary a lump-sum benefit because the former employee also took the employer's substantial clients to his new employer, or reduce the benefit because the former employee participated in a strike against the employer. Such an unjust result would be the jury's onus, or more likely, the jury would sense the injustice and decide differently to correct that injustice. That was what Congress sought in passing ERISA: participant-beneficiaries ought to recover benefits they rightfully are owed.
George Lee Flint, Jr., ERISA: Jury Trial Mandated for Benefit Claims Actions, 25 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 361 (1992).