SYKES, Circuit Judge.
This mandamus petition raises a question of first impression in this circuit: Does ERISA's venue provision, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2), preclude enforcement of a forum-selection clause in an employee-benefits plan? George Mathias, the plan beneficiary and mandamus petitioner here, argues that it does; the Secretary of Labor, as amicus curiae, supports that interpretation. The respondent health plans argue that § 1132(e)(2) is permissive only and does not invalidate a forum-selection clause contained in plan documents.
Only one circuit has addressed this question. The Sixth Circuit has held that an ERISA plan's forum-selection clause is enforceable even if it overrides the beneficiary's choice of a venue permitted by § 1132(e)(2). Smith v. Aegon Cos. Pension Plan, 769 F.3d 922, 931-34 (6th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, No. 14-1168 (Jan. 11, 2016). The court reasoned that because the statute is phrased in permissive terms—it states that a suit "may be brought" in one of several federal judicial districts—it does not preclude the parties from contractually channeling venue to a particular federal district. Id. at 932. We agree and join the Sixth Circuit in holding that ERISA's venue provision does not invalidate a forum-selection clause contained in plan documents.
This case is in its early stages and the mandamus petition raises a single legal issue, so we can be brief about the factual and procedural background. From 1978 to 1997, Mathias worked for Caterpillar, Inc., at its plant in York, Pennsylvania. In May 1997 he experienced serious health issues, and the Social Security Administration declared him disabled as of that date. Caterpillar covered his health insurance as an employee on long-term disability, billing him accordingly for his portion of the premium. In September 2012 Mathias chose to retire retroactively, effective October 1, 2009. Caterpillar failed to change Mathias's status and did not realize its mistake until the middle of 2013. The company then notified Mathias that he owed more than $9,500 in past-due premiums, which reflected the difference between the rate for a long-term disabled employee and the rate for a retired employee. When Mathias did not pay that amount, Caterpillar terminated his benefits.
Mathias sued Caterpillar and the relevant health plans in federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
When the case arrived in the Central District, Mathias moved to transfer it back to Pennsylvania—either to the Eastern or Middle District
Mathias petitioned for mandamus relief in this court. He asks us to direct Judge Mihm to transfer the case to the Eastern or Middle District of Pennsylvania. Caterpillar has responded, and Mathias tendered a reply brief with a motion for leave to file it. We now grant that motion and accept the reply brief. In addition, we invited the Secretary of Labor to file an amicus curiae brief. He has done so and supports Mathias's interpretation of § 1132(e)(2). The matter is ready for decision.
We begin by noting that mandamus is the appropriate procedural method to obtain review of a district court's decision on a § 1404(a) transfer motion. Without the availability of mandamus relief, the question of proper venue escapes meaningful appellate review. In re Hudson, 710 F.3d 716, 717 (7th Cir. 2013); In re LimitNone, LLC, 551 F.3d 572, 575 (7th Cir. 2008) (per curiam); In re Nat'l Presto Indus., Inc., 347 F.3d 662, 663 (7th Cir. 2003).
Mathias could have asked the Third Circuit for mandamus relief from Judge Robreno's transfer order, but for reasons not clear to us, he waited to seek appellate review until after Judge Mihm denied his motion to send the case back to Pennsylvania. Appellate review would have been more appropriate in the Third Circuit, where the transferor court sits. See 15 CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT ET AL., FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 3846 (4th ed. 2016). In considering Mathias's motion to retransfer, Judge Mihm was bound by law-of-the-case principles that apply to transfer decisions of another district court.
Constrained by those principles, the motion was highly unlikely to succeed. Although a court may revisit a prior decision of its own or a coordinate court, it ordinarily should not do so "in the absence of extraordinary circumstances such as where the initial decision was `clearly erroneous and would work a manifest injustice.'" Christianson v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800, 817 (1988) (quoting Arizona v. California, 460 U.S. 605, 618 n.8 (1983)). "[T]he policies supporting the doctrine [of law of the case] apply with even greater force to transfer decisions than to decisions of substantive law; transferee courts that feel entirely free to revisit transfer decisions of a coordinate court threaten to send litigants into a vicious circle of litigation." Id. at 816; see also United States v. Wyatt, 672 F.3d 519, 523 (7th Cir. 2012) ("[I]n the usual case another court should not respond by batting the suit back again.").
Unsurprisingly then, Mathias's retransfer motion failed. Judge Mihm found no clear defect or manifest injustice in Judge Robreno's ruling that the plan's forum-selection clause is valid and enforceable. With no controlling Supreme Court or Seventh Circuit precedent, Judge Mihm quite reasonably deferred to Judge Robreno's decision, which drew primarily on the Sixth Circuit's opinion in Smith, the only appellate ruling on this subject. Judge Mihm also looked to a recent decision by a district judge in the Southern District of Illinois collecting district-court decisions on this issue, most of which follow Smith. Feather v. SSM Health Care, 216 F.Supp.3d 934 (S.D. Ill. 2016) (collecting cases).
Like Judge Robreno before him, Judge Mihm rejected Mathias's argument that § 1132(e)(2) gives plan beneficiaries a statutory right to their choice of venue. He observed that forum-selection clauses are "not inconsistent with the purposes of ERISA generally or its venue statute in particular." The judge went on to explain that a forum-selection clause like the one at issue here "allows a plaintiff access to federal courts when it provides for venue in a federal court" and "promotes other ERISA policies, including uniformity of administration and reducing costs, which benefit all participants and beneficiaries."
Our review of Judge Mihm's order necessarily incorporates the merits of Judge Robreno's original transfer decision. Alexander v. Erie Ins. Exch., 982 F.2d 1153, 1156 (7th Cir. 1993); see also Posnanski v. Gibney, 421 F.3d 977, 980-81 (9th Cir. 2005); SongByrd, Inc. v. Estate of Grossman, 206 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2000); Hill v. Henderson, 195 F.3d 671, 677 (D.C. Cir. 1999). Law-of-the-case principles do not insulate the question from appellate review. Christianson, 486 U.S. at 817; Minch v. City of Chicago, 486 F.3d 294, 302 (7th Cir. 2007); McMasters v. United States, 260 F.3d 814, 818 (7th Cir. 2001). If the district court applied the wrong standard, mandamus relief may be appropriate. Atl. Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for W. Dist. of Tex., 134 S.Ct. 568, 575 (2013).
As in all mandamus proceedings, however, the party seeking mandamus in the transfer context "has an uphill fight"; the writ may be used to reverse a transfer decision "only if the applicant can show that the transfer order is a `violation of a clear and indisputable legal right, or, at the very least, is patently erroneous.'" Hudson, 710 F.3d at 718-19 (quoting In re Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc., 51 F.3d 1293, 1295 (7th Cir. 1995) (alteration omitted)); see also In re Balsimo, 68 F.3d 185, 187 (7th Cir. 1995). That steep standard has not been met here.
The transfer statute provides: "For the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought or to any district or division to which all parties have consented." § 1404(a). The Supreme Court has recently reiterated that § 1404(a) is the proper "mechanism for enforcement of forum-selection clauses that point to a particular federal district." Atl. Marine, 134 S. Ct. at 579. But the § 1404(a) analysis is much narrower in this context:
Atl. Marine, 134 S. Ct. at 581.
Atlantic Marine clarified that "[t]he presence of a valid forum-selection clause requires district courts to adjust their usual § 1404(a) analysis in three ways. First, the plaintiff's choice of forum merits no weight." Id. Second, and relatedly, "a court evaluating a defendant's § 1404(a) motion to transfer based on a forum-selection clause should not consider arguments about the parties' private interests." Id. at 582. The Court explained that a contractual forum-selection clause is an agreed-upon predispute allocation of the plaintiff's "venue privilege" and the parties' respective private interests. Id. at 581-82. Accordingly, to resolve a transfer motion in this context, "a district court may consider arguments about public-interest factors only." Id. at 582. And because public-interest factors will "rarely defeat" a transfer to the contractually chosen forum, "the practical result is that forum-selection clauses should control except in unusual cases." Id.
Although ERISA plans are a special kind of contract and courts are attentive to the statutory goal of protecting beneficiaries, an ERISA plan is nonetheless a contract. Larson v. United Healthcare Ins. Co., 723 F.3d 905, 911 (7th Cir. 2013) (explaining that a claim for benefits "is governed by a federal common law of contract keyed to the policies codified in ERISA"); Herzberger v. Standard Ins. Co., 205 F.3d 327, 330 (7th Cir. 2000). And the Supreme Court held long ago—well before Atlantic Marine limited the scope of the § 1404(a) analysis in this context—that contractual forum-selection clauses are presumptively valid even in the absence of arm's-length bargaining. Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 593-95 (1991).
What all this means for the present dispute is that the forum-selection clause in the Caterpillar plan is controlling unless ERISA invalidates it. The relevant part of ERISA's venue provision states:
§ 1132(e)(2) (emphasis added). Nothing in this text expressly invalidates forum-selection clauses in employee-benefits plans.
Mathias argues that ERISA's broad beneficiary-protection purpose requires us to read this language as conferring on plan beneficiaries a statutory right to choose any of the listed venues without regard to a forum-selection clause contained in the governing plan documents. This beneficiary right of venue choice, the argument goes, maximizes ERISA's goal of "protect[ing] . . . the interests of participants . . . by providing. . . ready access to the Federal courts." 29 U.S.C. § 1001(b). With support from the Secretary of Labor, Mathias argues that forum-selection clauses in plan documents are categorically invalid because they deprive plan participants and beneficiaries of the right to select from the menu of venue options offered by § 1132(e)(2).
The Sixth Circuit has carefully considered and rejected this interpretation of ERISA's venue provision. Smith, 769 F.3d at 931-33. At issue in Smith was a pension plan's forum-selection clause directing litigation to federal court in Iowa. Id. at 925. A beneficiary sued in Kentucky instead, arguing that the plan's forum-selection clause was invalid under § 1132(e)(2). As here, the Secretary of Labor appeared as amicus curiae in support of the beneficiary's position. The Sixth Circuit rejected that view, noting that the statute is not phrased in rights-granting terms: it states only that when a civil action is brought in federal court, "it may be brought in the district where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found." § 1132(e)(2) (emphasis added). This "may be brought" phrasing is entirely permissive, and no other statutory language precludes the parties from contractually narrowing the options to one of the venues listed in the statute. Smith, 769 F.3d at 931-32.
The Sixth Circuit also explained that forum-selection clauses channeling litigation to a particular federal court preserve ready access to federal court, consistent with the general policy expressed in § 1001(b). Id. at 931. Finally, the court observed that plan language limiting litigation to a single federal district promotes uniformity in decisions interpreting the plan, thus reducing administrative costs for plan sponsors and beneficiaries alike.
Though Smith was not unanimous, see id. at 934-36 (Clay, J. dissenting), we find the majority's reasoning convincing. The Sixth Circuit's analysis is faithful to the statutory text and not inconsistent with the broader statutory policy of maintaining access to federal court. Moreover, the forum-selection clause in the Caterpillar plan funnels litigation to a venue listed in § 1132(e)(2) and so has simply settled on one of the various statutory options. See Fry v. Exelon Corp. Cash Balance Pension Plan, 571 F.3d 644, 646 (7th Cir. 2009) ("Employers are entitled to vary by contract those aspects of pension plans ERISA makes variable. . . ."). As the Sixth Circuit explained in Smith, ERISA's statutory scheme "is built around reliance on the face of written plan documents," 769 F.3d at 929-30 (quoting US Airways, Inc. v. McCutchen, 133 S.Ct. 1537, 1548 (2013)), and sponsoring employers and plan administrators are given significant leeway in the design of benefits plans.
In support of their position, Mathias and the Secretary direct us to an obscure decision of the Supreme Court: In Boyd v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad Co., 338 U.S. 263 (1949) (per curiam), the Court invalidated a contractual forum-selection clause as inconsistent with the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"). Boyd involved a railroad employee who was injured on the job and twice received advances from his employer while he was recuperating, each time signing a stipulation that any suit regarding the accident would be brought in the county or district where the injury occurred. Id. at 263-64.
In a brief per curiam opinion, the Court invalidated the stipulated forum clause, noting that the agreements were signed after the employee was injured and limited fora otherwise available under FELA. Id. at 265-66. This limitation, the Court held, violated a provision in FELA voiding "[a]ny contract, rule, regulation, or device whatsoever, the purpose or intent of which shall be to enable any common carrier to exempt itself from any liability created by this Act." Id. at 265.
Boyd is a bit of a relic, but it has not been overruled. Mathias and the Secretary urge us to give it controlling force here. We're not inclined to extend Boyd to modern forum-clause jurisprudence. Boyd was decided in an era of marked judicial suspicion of contractual forum selection. The Court has since adopted "a more hospitable attitude toward forum-selection clauses." M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 10 (1972). Indeed, as Atlantic Marine holds, a contractual choice of forum is now considered controlling "except in unusual cases." 134 S. Ct. at 582.
More to the point here, Boyd sheds no light on the proper interpretation of ERISA's venue provision. As we've explained, nothing in the text of § 1132(e)(2) precludes the parties from contractually channeling litigation to a particular federal district. Nor is contractual forum selection incompatible with ERISA's policy goals more generally. "ERISA represents a `careful balancing' between ensuring fair and prompt enforcement of rights under a plan and the encouragement of the creation of such plans." Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 134 S.Ct. 2459, 2470 (2014) (quoting Conkright v. Frommert, 559 U.S. 506, 517 (2010)); see also Varity Corp. v. Howe, 516 U.S. 489, 497 (1996) (explaining that "courts may have to take account of competing congressional purposes" when examining to what extent ERISA requires departing from common-law trust requirements). As the Sixth Circuit observed in Smith, forum-selection clauses promote uniformity in plan administration and reduce administrative costs and in that sense are consistent with the broader statutory goals of ERISA. 769 F.3d at 931-32.
The forum-selection clause in the Caterpillar plan chooses from among the venue options listed in § 1132(e)(2), and nothing in the statute makes that choice invalid. Accordingly, we hold that the plan's forum-selection clause is enforceable.
RIPPLE, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
My esteemed colleagues have voted to deny the petition. Their opinion, as well as the thoughtful opinions of other courts that have taken that position, demonstrate that their view is a very defensible perspective on a very difficult issue.
Mr. Mathias admittedly has to face an array of general principles that militate against acceptance of his position. First, although federal law once disfavored forum selection clauses, after the Supreme Court's decision in The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1 (1972), courts have accepted them as prima facie valid. Indeed, the Supreme Court has not required forum selection clauses to be the result of armslength negotiations in order to be enforceable. See Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 593-95 (1991). General principles governing the transfer of cases within the federal system also militate against his position, as outlined in the majority opinion. See Op. at 720128 (discussing Atl. Marine Constr. Co., Inc. v. United States Dist. Court for the W. Dist. of Tex., 134 S.Ct. 568 (2013)). Mr. Mathias also must contend with the basic principle of ERISA interpretation that the Plan must be administered according to the plan documents, and, here, the documents plainly state that suit can be brought only in the Central District of Illinois.
In the face of these general principles, Mr. Mathias, along with the Secretary of Labor, contend that the forum selection clause in this case is invalid, and that therefore the district court should have employed the traditional 1404(a) inquiry without any reference to the forum selection clause in the plan documents. Their core contention is that forum selection clauses in ERISA plan documents cannot narrow the venues available to a plaintiff so as to exclude a venue specifically authorized by the ERISA venue provision. That provision states that a challenge under the relevant subchapter of ERISA "may be brought in the district where the plan is administered, where the breach took place, or where a defendant resides or may be found, and process may be served in any other district where a defendant resides or may be found." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2). The Secretary views this provision as intentionally protective of the ERISA beneficiary. It ensures that the beneficiary has recourse to the federal court at a place near where the benefit was due. While he acknowledges that fiduciaries must "discharge . . . duties . . . in accordance with the documents and instruments governing the plan insofar as such documents and instruments are consistent with the provisions of" the statute, id. § 1104(a)(1), he points out that the statute ought to be read "to protect . . . the interests of participants in employee benefit plans . . . by providing for appropriate remedies, sanctions, and ready access to the Federal courts," id. § 1001(b). Therefore, he argues, the special venue provisions cannot be cancelled out by agreement between the employer and the plan.
I think there is merit in the Secretary's view. Certainly, the Supreme Court's cases have sanctioned the widespread use of forum selection clauses. But, as the Supreme Court has made clear, "[a] contractual choice-of-forum clause should be held unenforceable if enforcement would contravene a strong public policy of the forum in which suit is brought, whether declared by statute or by judicial decision." The Bremen, 407 U.S. at 15. In my view, a contractual clause that restricts the right of an ERISA plan participant to an action in a forum far away from his home and his place of employment
Dumont, 2016 WL 3620736, at *7 (second, third, and fourth alterations in original). In ERISA, Congress chose to enact a specific venue provision, rather than relying on the general federal venue rules provided by § 1391. As Judge Torresen notes, the Supreme Court considered a similarly worded special venue provision under the Federal Employers' Liability Act in Boyd v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad Co., 338 U.S. 263 (1949), and concluded that "[t]he right to select the forum granted in [FELA's venue provision] is a substantial right. It would thwart the express purpose of the [statute] to sanction defeat of that right by the device at bar." Id. at 266. The "device at bar" that the Court considered was an individually negotiated instrument between an injured worker and his employer, following the injury, that limited the worker's choice of venue in exchange for money. In short, in considering a different protective statute, the Court found a "right" to the venue that could not be abrogated by a directly negotiated contract for consideration with the beneficiary. Although Boyd was decided prior to The Bremen and in an era of skepticism toward forum selection clauses, its holding on the question of statutory interpretation remains intact. Although the Sixth Circuit concluded that the "permissive" language of the ERISA venue provision did not create a right to the enumerated venues, see Smith v. Aegon Companies Pension Plan, 769 F.3d 922, 932 (6th Cir. 2014), such a decision is hard to square with Boyd's holding.
As Judge Torresen notes, an ERISA plan beneficiary is in a unique and difficult position with respect to a forum selection clause embedded in the plan documents. An ERISA beneficiary has no role in the negotiation or even the acceptance of the plan terms. Unlike the plaintiffs in cases like Shute, who chose to enter a contract as a party, even though they did not negotiate the terms in an arms-length transaction, an ERISA beneficiary is, as a practical matter, simply a beneficiary of an agreement that other parties have negotiated and accepted.
Although I reach this result on the basis of my own interpretation of the statute, I hasten to add that I also am persuaded that the Secretary's interpretation is indeed entitled to respect. Although "[c]ertain aspects of statutory interpretation remain within the purview of the courts" rather than "properly understood as delegated by Congress to an expert and accountable administrative body," Negusie v. Holder, 555 U.S. 511, 531 (2009) (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), I believe that we need to give some respect to the interpretation of the officer charged with the administration of the statute. While I would reach the same result on the basis of my own analysis, I respectfully acknowledge the Secretary's expertise with respect to the statute.
Accordingly, I respectfully part company with my esteemed colleagues. In my view, the forum selection clause at issue is invalid and unenforceable because it is inconsistent with the forum selection rights protected by § 1132. I therefore conclude that mandamus relief is appropriate in the present case. I would direct the district court to retransfer the case for adjudication.
Judge Clay dissented. He concluded that the public policy embodied in ERISA was designed to protect the interests of plan participants and the statute explicitly set forth as an enacted purpose to remove jurisdictional and procedural obstacles. Id. at 935-36 (Clay, J., dissenting). He wrote that the broad venue provision
Id. at 935.