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Coutu v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

December 3, 2019

BERNARD COUTU, Plaintiff,
v.
BRIDGESTONE AMERICAS, INC. and BRIDGESTONE AMERICAS TIRE OPERATIONS, LLC, Defendants.

          NEWBERN MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM

          WILLIAM L. CAMPBELL, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Defendants' Rule 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction. (Doc. No. 58). Plaintiff filed a response (Doc. No. 61) and Defendants' filed a reply (Doc. No. 66). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is DENIED.

         Plaintiff brings this case under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. ch. 18, alleging claims relating to his medical and retirement benefits. On August 13, 2019, the Court issued an Order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants on all claims except for the retaliation claim. (Doc. No. 52). Through the current motion, Defendants assert the Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the remaining claim because: (1) Plaintiff is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and these damages are unavailable for this claim under the ERISA statute; and (2) there is no equitable relief the court could order that would redress Plaintiff's retaliation claim. Defendants conclude that because the remaining claim lacks redressability, Plaintiff does not have constitutional standing, and thus the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction is a “threshold determination” in any action. Am. Telecom Co. v. Republic of Lebanon, 501 F.3d 534, 537 (6th Cir. 2007). This reflects the fundamental principle that “[j]urisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist, the only function remaining to the court is that of announcing the fact and dismissing the cause.” Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998) (quoting Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506, 514 (1868)).

         The party asserting subject-matter jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing that it exists. Ammons v. Ally Fin., Inc., 305 F.Supp.3d 818, 820 (M.D. Tenn. 2018). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction “may either attack the claim of jurisdiction on its face or it can attack the factual basis of jurisdiction.” Golden v. Gorno Bros., Inc., 410 F.3d 879, 881 (6th Cir. 2005). A facial attack challenges the sufficiency of the pleading and, like a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), requires the Court to take all factual allegations in the pleading as true. Wayside Church v. Van Buren Cty., 847 F.3d 812, 816-17 (6th Cir. 2017) (citing Gentek Bldg. Prods., Inc. v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 491 F.3d 320, 330 (6th Cir. 2007)). A factual attack challenges the allegations supporting jurisdiction, raising “a factual controversy requiring the district court to ‘weigh the conflicting evidence to arrive at the factual predicate that subject-matter does or does not exist.'” Id. at 817 (quoting Gentek, 491 F.3d at 330). District courts reviewing factual attacks have “wide discretion to allow affidavits, documents and even a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts.” Ohio Nat'l Life Ins. Co. v. United States, 922 F.3d 320, 325 (6th Cir. 1990).

         Defendants allege that the “facts developed in discovery” preclude relief in this case, thus the Court will consider this challenge a “factual” attack on jurisdiction. However, as discussed below, the Court does not find it necessary to weigh the evidence as the Court's determination of subject-matter jurisdiction is not grounded in resolution of any factual controversy.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff's retaliation claim is brought under ERISA Section 510, which is exclusively enforced through ERISA Section 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). Ingersoll-Rand Co. v. McClendon, 498 U.S. 133, 145 (1990) (finding Section 502(a) is the “exclusive remedy for vindicating § 510-protected rights”); Millsap v. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 368 F.3d 1246, 1247 (10th Cir. 2004) (“Section 502(a)(3) of ERISA provides the plan participant with his exclusive remedies for a § 510 violation.”). ERISA Section 502(a)(3) provides:

A civil action may be brought … by a participant, beneficiary or fiduciary (A) to enjoin any act or practice which violates any provision of this subchapter or the terms of the plan, or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief (i) to redress such violations or (ii) to enforce any provisions of this subchapter or the terms of the plan.

29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). This provision serves as a “catchall” or “safety net, offering appropriate equitable relief for injuries caused by violations that § 502 does not adequately remedy.” Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 512 (1996). What constitutes “appropriate equitable relief” under the statute has been the subject of much debate. See e.g., Montanile v. Bd. of Tr. of Nat'l. Elevator Indus. Health Benefit Plan, 136 S.Ct. 651 (2016); Great-West Life Inc. & Ann. Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204 (2002); Mertens v. Hewitt Assoc., 508 U.S. 248 (1993). As discussed below, the Court need not reach the question of whether the Plaintiff has requested relief available under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3).

         The Second Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 27) requests the following relief: “compensatory and/or punitive damages stemming from Defendants' acts of retaliation and interference; and … any other legal or equitable relief this Court deems just and proper.”[1]Defendants argue that compensatory and punitive damages are legal damages unavailable under the ERISA statute and that there is no equitable relief the court can order that would redress the Plaintiff's alleged injury. Relying on the facts developed during discovery, Defendants argue that “regardless of the relief Coutu sought, no relief is available for the Court to order.” (Def. Reply, Doc. No. 66 at 3; see also, Def. Br., Doc. No. 59 at 3 (“his pleading confirms that within the context of the facts that have developed in discovery, given his specific claim, equitable relief if not available”)). Defendants conclude “[t]he factual record developed in this case further confirms the lack of available equitable relief for Coutu's remaining § 510 claim, and by extension, the lack of redressability.” (Def. Br., Doc. No. 59 at 4). Defendants contend that because there is no relief for the Court to order, Plaintiff does not have Article III standing to bring his claim.

         Plaintiff responds that he requested equitable relief in the Second Amended Complaint, but that even if he had failed to do so, under the Sixth Circuit's holding in Primax Recoveries, Inc. v. Gunter, 433 F.3d 515 (6th Cir. 2006), such an omission would not deprive the Court of subject-matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants arguments regarding the availability of equitable relief should have been raised in a motion to dismiss or a ...


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