United States District Court, D. Kansas
SUSAN G. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
ASCENSION HEALTH LONG-TERM DISABILITY (LTD) PLAN, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Thomas Marten Chief United States District Judge.
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.
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,
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, §
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 long-term 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.
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
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)
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).
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),  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 the spirit of ERISA - to protect the
interests of the plan participants and beneficiaries. The
court finds plaintiff's arguments unpersuasive.
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, 4 ...