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Filing an ERISA Complaint in Federal Court

Filing an ERISA Complaint in Federal Court

When filing a complaint, or any other document in a civil action, in federal court, the governing law is the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), the local district court rules, and judge-specific rules that are set forth on the judge's web site. It is important to review and follow those rules carefully.

The Complaint in ERISA Cases

Typically, an ERISA complaint will plead a claim for denial of long-term disability benefits under a breach of the Employer Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

The complaint must state the jurisdiction, such as “This action arises under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) 29 U.S.C. Sections 1132(1), (e), (f), and (g) as well as 28 U.S.C. Section 1331, as this action involves a federal question and a claim by plaintiff for employee benefits under employee benefit plans regulated and governed under ERISA.”

The complaint requires a statement of venue, such as “Venue is proper pursuant to the provisions of 29 U.S.C. Section 1132(e)(2) as a substantial part of the events that give rise to plaintiff's claims arose in the Central District and Western Division and because one or more of the breaches complained of in this complaint occurred in said District and Division.”

The complaint must include the parties, a statement of the facts, the claims, and the requested relief (“prayer”).

A statement in the complaint as to standard of review may be appropriate, acknowledging that typically an abuse of discretion standard applies, but that plaintiff may be entitled to a de novo standard of review pursuant to California Insurance Code Section 10110.6, which prohibits discretionary clauses in long-term disability plans, and to Orzechowski v. Boeing Co. Non-Union LTD Plan, No. 14-55919, 856 F.3d 686 (9th Cir. 2017), where the Ninth Circuit upheld the application of § 10110.6 to ERISA cases.

The complaint may include a claim for discretionary attorney's fees under U.S.C. Section 1132(g).

Electronic Filing of the Complaint and Initiating Documents

A lawsuit in federal court is initiated by filing the complaint (original plus 2 copies), together with a Civil Cover Sheet (original plus 2 copies), a Summons (original plus 2 copies), and a Certificate and Notice of Interested Parties (original plus 2 copies). These are the “case initiating documents.” These documents should be filed separately with the court.

In the Central District, Local Rule 3-1 provides that all civil actions must be accompanied by a Civil Cover Sheet (Form CV-071) completed and signed by the attorney or party presenting the matter. Copies of the Civil Cover Sheet and other forms are available from the Court's website, at www.cacd.uscourts.gov.

Pursuant to Local Rule 5-4.1 of the Central District of California, electronic filing of the complaint and initiating documents is mandatory for attorneys in all civil cases (including ERISA) in the Central District (and other federal districts) of California. All documents must be filed electronically, unless exempted by Local Rule 5-4.2 (e.g., documents filed under seal), using the Court's Case Management/Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) system.

The Case Management/Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) system is the federal judiciary's comprehensive case management system for all appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. CM/ECF allows courts to accept filings and provide access to filed documents over the Internet.

To file documents using CM/ECF in cases pending in the Central District of California, users must obtain a CM/ECF login and password from the Central District of California. You may request a CM/ECF login and password on line. [Ref: https://www.cacd.uscourts.gov/e-filing/request-cmecf-account]

You will need one original and two copies of your complaint, and a mandatory chambers copy of the complaint must be served on the judge that has been assigned to your case.

A “mandatory chambers copy” is an exact duplicate of an electronically filed document submitted in paper format directly to the assigned judge. Unless otherwise ordered by the assigned judge, one mandatory chambers copy of every electronically filed document must be delivered to the chambers of the assigned judge, or other designated location, no later than 12:00 noon on the following business day. Mandatory chambers copies must comply with L.R. 11-3, et seq. (i.e., blue-backing, font size, page-numbering, tabbing of exhibits, etc.), unless otherwise directed by the assigned judge. Mandatory chambers copies must be prominently labeled MANDATORY CHAMBERS COPY on the face page. Mandatory chambers copies must be printed from CM/ECF, and must include: (1) the CM/ECF-generated header (consisting of the case number, document control number, date of filing, page number, etc.) at the top of each page; and (2) the NEF (see L.R. 5-3.2.1) as the last page of the document. The Court's CM/ECF Website contains additional instructions by judges for delivery of mandatory chambers copies, including each judge's designated delivery location, and any differences in the required number of copies or delivery deadline.

The cost is $400 to file a federal complaint.

The Summons

Local Rule 4-1 Summons - Presentation for Issuance. The summons must be prepared using an approved form of summons, available from the Court's website, www.cacd.uscourts.gov.

The summons must be presented electronically for issuance by the Clerk, using the Court's CM/ECF System. The summons must be signed by the court clerk and bear the court's official seal (FRCP 4(a)(1).

The summons and complaint must be personally served (usually by a process server) on all the defendants in the case, within 120 days of filing the complaint. This constitutes “service of process,” which creates personal jurisdiction over the defendant and notifies the defendant(s) that a legal action has been filed.

A corporation may be served by delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to an officer or an agent authorized by appointment or law to receive service of process.

In lieu of serving a summons, a plaintiff may obtain a waiver of service from the defendant pursuant to FRCP 4(d), notifying the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed, with a written request for a waiver under FRCP 4(d)(1). To be effective, the defendant or the defendant's attorney must sign the waiver of service and return it to the plaintiff, which must then be filed with the court.

Electronic Signatures

In the case of a document in which there is only one signatory, who is a registered CM/ECF filer, the document shall be filed using that signatory's CM/ECF login and password, which shall function as the signatory's signature. Electronically filed documents must also include a signature block as provided in Local Rule 11-1, and the signature shall be represented on the signature line with either an “/s/” or a digitized personalized signature.

Electronic Proof of Service

Upon the electronic filing of a document, a “Notice of Electronic Filing” (“NEF”) will be automatically generated by the CM/ECF System and sent by e-mail to all attorneys who have appeared in the case, and this electronic NEF constitutes service pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the NEF itself will constitute proof of service for individuals so served.

Redactions

Local Rule 5.2-1 provides that it is the responsibility of the filer to ensure full compliance with the redaction requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2. Rule 5.2 provides privacy protections for filings made with the court, as follows: (a) Redacted Filings. Unless the court orders otherwise, in an electronic or paper filing with the court that contains an individual's social-security number, taxpayer-identification number, or birth date, the name of an individual known to be a minor, or a financial-account number, a party or nonparty making the filing may include only: (1) the last four digits of the social-security number and taxpayer-identification number; (2) the year of the individual's birth; (3) the minor's initials; and (4) the last four digits of the financial-account number.

In addition, the filer shall redact passport numbers and driver license numbers in their entirety and shall ensure that any document that contains a home address (except any proof of service filed as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(l)) shall include only the city and state.

The Answer

A defendant usually responds to the complaint by serving an answer. However, instead of responding with an answer, the defendant may respond with a motion to dismiss or a motion to strike under FRCP 12(b), (e) and (f).

The time to respond is usually 21 days.

In the answer, a defendant may use a general denial to deny every allegation in the complaint (including the identity of the parties and the jurisdictional grounds), but only if the defendant can deny all the allegations in “good faith.”

A “qualified general denial” denies all of the allegations in the complaint “except for those allegations specifically admitted.” FRCP 8(b)(3).

Specific denials deny all or part of a specific paragraph(s) in the complaint. FRCP 8(b)(3)-(4).

An answer should contain affirmative defenses, which are defenses which the defendant bears the burden of proof at trial, that include estoppel, laches, offset, res judicata, state of limitations, unclean hands, wavier, and others.

IF grounds exist, an answer may include a counterclaim that the defendant asserts against the plaintiff [FRCP 13(a)(1) and (2), or a cross-claim against a co-party [FRCP 13(g).]

Calculating Time

In order to calculate the time required to respond to a complaint or other pleading in federal court, follow these rules: (a) Exclude the day of the event that triggers the period of time. (2) Count all of the days in the period, including weekends and legal holidays. (3) Include the last day of the period, unless the last day falls on a weekend or legal holiday, in which case the period continues to run until the next day that is not a weekend or holiday [FRCP 6(a).]

Don't miss a deadline. It could be fatal to your case. Calendar deadline dates carefully and promptly.

ERISA law is complicated. At Law Med, we are ERISA knowledgeable and experienced.

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