JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The principal question in dispute between the parties is whether the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 88 Stat. 829, as amended, 29 U. S. C. § 1001 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. V), permits state tax authorities
None of the relevant facts is in dispute. Appellee Construction Laborers Vacation Trust for southern California (CLVT)
Appellant Franchise Tax Board is a California agency charged with enforcement of that State's personal income tax law. California law authorizes appellant to require any person in possession of "credits or other personal property or other things of value, belonging to a taxpayer" "to withhold. . . the amount of any tax, interest, or penalties due from the taxpayer . . . and to transmit the amount withheld to the Franchise Tax Board." Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code Ann. § 18817 (West Supp. 1983). Any person who, upon notice by the Franchise Tax Board, fails to comply with its request to withhold and to transmit funds becomes personally liable for the amounts identified in the notice. § 18818.
In June 1980, the Franchise Tax Board filed a complaint in state court against CLVT and its trustees. Under the heading "First Cause of Action," appellant alleged that CLVT had failed to comply with three levies issued under § 18817,
In a prayer for relief, appellant requested damages for defendants' failure to honor the levies and a declaration that defendants are "legally obligated to honor all future levies by the Board." Id., at 9.
CLVT removed the case to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, and the court denied the Franchise Tax Board's motion for remand to the state court. On the merits, the District Court ruled that ERISA did not pre-empt the State's power to levy on funds held in trust by CLVT. CLVT appealed, and the court of Appeals reversed. 679 F.2d 1307 (CA9 1982). On petition for rehearing, the Franchise Tax Board renewed its argument that the District Court lacked jurisdiction over the complaint in this case. The petition for rehearing was denied, and an appeal was taken to this Court. We postponed consideration of our jurisdiction pending argument on the merits. 459 U.S. 1085 (1982). We now hold that this case was not within the removal jurisdiction conferred by 28 U. S. C. § 1441, and therefore we do not reach the merits of the preemption question.
The jurisdictional structure at issue in this case has remained basically unchanged for the past century. With exceptions not relevant here, "any civil action brought in a
Since the first version of § 1331 was enacted, Act of Mar. 3, 1875, ch. 137, § 1, 18 Stat. 470, the statutory phrase "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States" has resisted all attempts to frame a single, precise definition for determining which cases fall within, and which cases fall outside, the original jurisdiction of the district courts. Especially when considered in light of § 1441's removal jurisdiction, the phrase "arising under" masks a welter of issues regarding the interrelation of federal and state authority and the proper management of the federal judicial system.
The most familiar definition of the statutory "arising under" limitation is Justice Holmes' statement, "A suit arises
One powerful doctrine has emerged, however — the "well-pleaded complaint" rule — which as a practical matter severely limits the number of cases in which state law "creates the cause of action" that may be initiated in or removed to
Thus, a federal court does not have original jurisdiction over a case in which the complaint presents a state-law cause of action, but also asserts that federal law deprives the defendant of a defense he may raise, Taylor v. Anderson, supra; Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149 (1908), or that a federal defense the defendant may raise is not sufficient to defeat the claim, Tennessee v. Union & Planters' Bank, 152 U.S. 454 (1894). "Although such allegations show that very likely, in the course of the litigation, a question under the Constitution would arise, they do not show that the suit, that is, the plaintiff's original cause of action, arises under the Constitution." Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Mottley, supra, at 152. For better or worse, under the present statutory scheme as it has existed since 1887, a defendant may not remove a case to federal court unless the plaintiff's complaint establishes that the case "arises under" federal law.
For many cases in which federal law becomes relevant only insofar as it sets bounds for the operation of state authority, the well-pleaded complaint rule makes sense as a quick rule of thumb. Describing the case before the Court in Gully,
The rule, however, may produce awkward results, especially in cases in which neither the obligation created by state law nor the defendant's factual failure to comply are in dispute, and both parties admit that the only question for decision is raised by a federal pre-emption defense. Nevertheless, it has been correctly understood to apply in such situations.
Simply to state these principles is not to apply them to the case at hand. Appellant's complaint sets forth two "causes of action," one of which expressly refers to ERISA; if either comes within the original jurisdiction of the federal courts, removal was proper as to the whole case. See 28 U. S. C. § 1441(c). Although appellant's complaint does not specifically assert any particular statutory entitlement for the relief it seeks, the language of the complaint suggests (and the parties do not dispute) that appellant's "first cause of action" states a claim under Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code Ann. § 18818 (West Supp. 1983), see supra, at 5-6, and its "second cause of action" states a claim under California's Declaratory Judgment Act, Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1060 (West 1980). As an initial proposition, then, the "law that creates the cause of action" is state law, and original federal jurisdiction is unavailable unless it appears that some substantial, disputed question of federal law is a necessary element of one of the well-pleaded state claims, or that one or the other claim is "really" one of federal law.
Even though state law creates appellant's causes of action, its case might still "arise under" the laws of the United States if a well-pleaded complaint established that its right to relief under state law requires resolution of a substantial question of federal law in dispute between the parties. For appellant's first cause of action — to enforce its levy, under § 18818 — a straightforward application of the well-pleaded complaint rule precludes original federal-court jurisdiction. California law establishes a set of conditions, without reference to federal law, under which a tax levy may be enforced; federal law becomes relevant only by way of a defense to an obligation created entirely by state law, and then only if appellant has made out a valid claim for relief under state law. See supra, at 11-12. The well-pleaded complaint rule was framed to deal with precisely such a situation. As we discuss
Appellant's declaratory judgment action poses a more difficult problem. Whereas the question of federal pre-emption is relevant to appellant's first cause of action only as a potential defense, it is a necessary element of the declaratory judgment claim. Under Cal. Civ. Proc. Code Ann. § 1060 (West 1980), a party with an interest in property may bring an action for a declaration of another party's legal rights and duties with respect to that property upon showing that there is an "actual controversy relating to the legal rights and duties" of the parties. The only questions in dispute between the parties in this case concern the rights and duties of CLVT and its trustees under ERISA. Not only does appellant's request for a declaratory judgment under California law clearly encompass questions governed by ERISA, but appellant's complaint identifies no other questions as a subject of controversy between the parties. Such questions must be raised in a well-pleaded complaint for a declaratory judgment.
In Skelly Oil, Skelly Oil and Phillips had a contract, for the sale of natural gas, that entitled the seller — Skelly Oil — to terminate the contract at any time after December 1, 1946, if the Federal Power Commission had not yet issued a certificate of convenience and necessity to a third party, a pipeline company to whom Phillips intended to resell the gas purchased from Skelly Oil. Their dispute began when the Federal Power Commission informed the pipeline company on November 30 that it would issue a conditional certificate, but did not make its order public until December 2. By this time Skelly Oil had notified Phillips of its decision to terminate their contract. Phillips brought an action in United States District Court under the federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U. S. C. § 2201, seeking a declaration that the contract was still in effect. 339 U. S., at 669-671.
There was no diversity between the parties, and we held that Phillips' claim was not within the federal-question jurisdiction conferred by § 1331. We reasoned:
We then observed that, under the well-pleaded complaint rule, an action by Phillips to enforce its contract would not present a federal question. Id., at 672. Skelly Oil has come to stand for the proposition that "if, but for the availability of the declaratory judgment procedure, the federal claim would arise only as a defense to a state created action, jurisdiction is lacking." 10A C. Wright, A. Miller, & M. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2767, pp. 744-745 (2d ed. 1983). Cf. Public Service Comm'n of Utah v. Wycoff Co., 344 U.S. 237, 248 (1952) (dictum).
Yet while Skelly Oil itself is limited to the federal Declaratory Judgment Act, fidelity to its spirit leads us to extend it to state declaratory judgment actions as well. If federal district courts could take jurisdiction, either originally or by removal, of state declaratory judgment claims raising questions of federal law, without regard to the doctrine of Skelly Oil, the federal Declaratory Judgment Act — with the limitations Skelly Oil read into it — would become a dead letter. For any case in which a state declaratory judgment action was available, litigants could get into federal court for a declaratory judgment despite our interpretation of § 2201, simply by pleading an adequate state claim for a declaration of federal law. Having interpreted the Declaratory Judgment Act of 1934 to include certain limitations on the jurisdiction of federal district courts to entertain declaratory judgment suits, we should be extremely hesitant to interpret the Judiciary Act of 1875 and its 1887 amendments in a way that renders the limitations in the later statute nugatory. Therefore, we hold that under the jurisdictional statutes as they now stand
2. The question, then, is whether a federal district court could take jurisdiction of appellant's declaratory judgment claim had it been brought under 28 U. S. C. § 2201.
We think not. We have always interpreted what Skelly Oil called "the current of jurisdictional legislation since the Act of March 3, 1875," 339 U. S., at 673, with an eye to practicality and necessity. "What is needed is something of that common-sense accommodation of judgment to kaleidoscopic situations which characterizes the law in its treatment of problems of causation . . . a selective process which picks the substantial causes out of the web and lays the other ones
CLVT also argues that appellant's "causes of action" are, in substance, federal claims. Although we have often repeated that "the party who brings a suit is master to decide what law he will rely upon," The Fair v. Kohler Die & Specialty Co., 228 U.S. 22, 25 (1913), it is an independent corollary of the well-pleaded complaint rule that a plaintiff may not defeat removal by omitting to plead necessary federal questions in a complaint, see Avco Corp. v. Aero Lodge No. 735, Int'l Assn. of Machinists, 376 F.2d 337, 339-340 (CA6 1967), aff'd, 390 U.S. 557 (1968).
CLVT's best argument stems from our decision in Avco Corp. v. Aero Lodge No. 735. In that case, the petitioner filed suit in state court alleging simply that it had a valid contract with the respondent, a union, under which the respondent had agreed to submit all grievances to binding arbitration and not to cause or sanction any "work stoppages, strikes, or slowdowns." The petitioner further alleged that the respondent and its officials had violated the agreement by
The Court of Appeals held, 376 F. 2d, at 340, and we affirmed, 390 U. S., at 560, that the petitioner's action "arose under" § 301, and thus could be removed to federal court, although the petitioner had undoubtedly pleaded an adequate claim for relief under the state law of contracts and had sought a remedy available only under state law. The necessary ground of decision was that the pre-emptive force of § 301 is so powerful as to displace entirely any state cause of action "for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization."
CLVT argues by analogy that ERISA, like § 301, was meant to create a body of federal common law, and that "any state court action which would require the interpretation or application of ERISA to a plan document `arises under' the laws of the United States." Brief for Appellees 20-21. ERISA contains provisions creating a series of express causes of action in favor of participants, beneficiaries, and fiduciaries of ERISA-covered plans, as well as the Secretary of Labor. § 502(a), 29 U. S. C. § 1132(a).
The phrasing of § 502(a) is instructive. Section 502(a) specifies which persons — participants, beneficiaries, fiduciaries, or the Secretary of Labor — may bring actions for particular kinds of relief. It neither creates nor expressly denies any cause of action in favor of state governments, to enforce tax levies or for any other purpose. It does not purport to reach every question relating to plans covered by ERISA.
Against this background, it is clear that a suit by state tax authorities under a statute like § 18818 does not "arise under" ERISA. Unlike the contract rights at issue in Avco, the State's right to enforce its tax levies is not of central concern
Once again, appellant's declaratory judgment cause of action presents a somewhat more difficult issue. The question on which a declaration is sought — that of the CLVT trustees' "power to honor the levies made upon them by the State of California," see supra, at 6 — is undoubtedly a matter of concern under ERISA. It involves the meaning and enforceability of provisions in CLVT's trust agreement forbidding the trustees to assign or otherwise to alienate funds held in trust, see supra, at 4-5, and n. 3, and thus comes within the class of questions for which Congress intended that federal courts create federal common law.
Our concern in this case is consistent application of a system of statutes conferring original federal-court jurisdiction, as they have been interpreted by this Court over many years. Under our interpretations, Congress has given the lower federal courts jurisdiction to hear, originally or by removal from a state court, only those cases in which a well-pleaded complaint establishes either that federal law creates
It is so ordered.
"[N]o payments due the Fund and no monies in vacation accounts established pursuant to the Plan shall be subject in any manner to anticipation, alienation, sale, transfer, assignment, encumbrance or charge by any employee or any other persons and any such anticipation, alienation, sale, transfer, assignment, pledge, encumbrance or charge shall be void and ineffective. The money credited to a vacation account shall be subject to withdrawal and distribution only at the times, in the manner and for the purposes specified in this Agreement." Id., at 49.
Section 404(a)(1) of ERISA, 29 U. S. C. § 1104(a)(1) (1976 ed. and Supp. V), requires plan trustees to discharge their duties "solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries," "for the exclusive purpose of . . . providing benefits . . . and . . . defraying reasonable expenses of administering the plan," and "in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan" insofar as they are consistent with ERISA. §§ 1104(a)(1)(A), (D).
Appellant took no immediate action to enforce its levy, and in January 1980 CLVT finally received the opinion letter it had requested. The opinion letter concluded: "[I]t is the position of the Department of Labor that the process of any state judicial or administrative agency seeking to levy for unpaid taxes or unpaid unemployment insurance contributions upon benefits due a participant or beneficiary under the Plan is pre-empted under ERISA section 514 [29 U. S. C. § 1144]." App. 71. Accordingly, on January 7, 1980, counsel for CLVT furnished appellant a copy of the opinion letter, informed appellant that CLVT lacked the power to honor appellant's levies, and stated their intention to recommend that CLVT should disburse the funds it had withheld to the employees in question.
It is possible to conceive of a rational jurisdictional system in which the answer as well as the complaint would be consulted before a determination was made whether the case "arose under" federal law, or in which original and removal jurisdiction were not coextensive. Indeed, until the 1887 amendments to the 1875 Act, Act of Mar. 3, 1887, ch. 373, 24 Stat. 552, as amended by Act of Aug. 13, 1888, ch. 866, 25 Stat. 433, the well-pleaded complaint rule was not applied in full force to cases removed from state court; the defendant's petition for removal could furnish the necessary guarantee that the case necessarily presented a substantial question of federal law. See Railroad Co. v. Mississippi, 102 U.S. 135, 140 (1880); Gold-Washing & Water Co. v. Keyes, 96 U.S. 199, 203-204 (1878). Commentators have repeatedly proposed that some mechanism be established to permit removal of cases in which a federal defense may be dispositive. See, e. g., American Law Institute, Study of the Division of Jurisdiction Between State and Federal Courts § 1312, pp. 188-194 (1969) (ALI Study); Wechsler, Federal Jurisdiction and the Revision of the Judicial Code, 13 Law & Contemp. Prob. 216, 233-234 (1948). But those proposals have not been adopted.
"Where the complaint in an action for declaratory judgment seeks in essence to assert a defense to an impending or threatened state court action, it is the character of the threatened action, and not of the defense, which will determine whether there is federal-question jurisdiction in the District Court. If the cause of action, which the declaratory defendant threatens to assert, does not itself involve a claim under federal law, it is doubtful if a federal court may entertain an action for a declaratory judgment establishing a defense to that claim. This is dubious even though the declaratory complaint sets forth a claim of federal right, if that right is in reality in the nature of a defense to a threatened cause of action. Federal courts will not seize litigations from state courts merely because one, normally a defendant, goes to federal court to begin his federal-law defense before the state court begins the case under state law." Id., at 248.
"[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 provision of this subchapter . . . ." 29 U. S. C. § 1132(a)(3).
See also n. 26, infra (federal jurisdiction over suits under § 502 is exclusive, and they are governed entirely by federal common law).
Even if ERISA did not expressly provide jurisdiction, CLVT might have been able to obtain federal jurisdiction under the doctrine applied in some cases that a person subject to a scheme of federal regulation may sue in federal court to enjoin application to him of conflicting state regulations, and a declaratory judgment action by the same person does not necessarily run afoul of the Skelly Oil doctrine. See, e. g., Lake Carriers' Assn. v. MacMullan, 406 U.S. 498, 506-508 (1972); Rath Packing Co. v. Becker, 530 F.2d 1295, 1303-1306 (CA9 1975), aff'd sub nom. Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519 (1977); First Federal Savings & Loan Assn. of Boston v. Greenwald, 591 F. 2d, at 423, and n. 8.