November 06, 2020

By Jamie Bowers

Seventh Amendment Jurisprudence

The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that “In Suits at common law [...] the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States.” Despite the simple language of the amendment, courts have struggled to determine which lawsuits today constitute “suits in common law” that merit a jury trial—particularly actions brought under newly-passed statutes such as ERISA.

In 1987, the Supreme Court explained in Tull v. U.S. that the phrase “suits at common law” was to be interpreted as analogous to lawsuits brought in English courts of law that would have required a jury trial, in contrast to cases tried in English courts of equity or admiralty. The Court stated that to determine whether a current statutory action is more similar to a “suit[] at common law” or a case tried in equity, the Court first “compare[s] the statutory action to 18th-century actions brought in the courts of England prior to the merger of the courts of law and equity.” Next, the Court “examine[s] the remedy sought and determine[s] whether it is legal or equitable in nature.” The Supreme Court later clarified that the second determination—whether the remedy was legal or equitable in nature—was more important.

Application to ERISA

ERISA is silent as to whether litigants are entitled to a jury trial in an ERISA action.

No Jury Trial Permitted

Most courts that have addressed the issue of whether ERISA litigants are entitled to a trial in actions under § 502 have concluded that they are not. These courts have come to this conclusion for two reasons. Following Tull, they have first noted that ERISA is closely related to the common law of trusts, which was typically within the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of equity.6 Then, they have considered the nature of the remedy sought and concluded that it is equitable and thus not suitable for a jury trial. Some of these courts have also noted that even though ERISA plaintiffs seek monetary damages, those damages are considered restitutionary and thus sound in equity.

A few courts have gone so far to say that the Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue of whether ERISA litigants may receive a jury trial. Several courts have interpreted the Supreme Court decision in Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248 (1993) as holding that ERISA does not provide for monetary damages under § 502(a)(3) and thus, no jury trial is available.8 But this is a broad reading of Mertens—Mertens’ holding with respect to remedies was much narrower. Mertens held that ERISA did not allow monetary damages against a nonfiduciary under § 502(a)(3).9 Mertens specifically notes that a fiduciary is personally liable for damages caused by any breach of their duties and restitution or other equitable relief.10 Later Supreme Court rulings

have clarified that an ERISA plaintiff may receive monetary compensation against a fiduciary sued under § 502(a)(3) (although it is categorized as traditionally equitable relief, rather than legal).11 Finally, Mertens does not at all address whether an ERISA litigant is entitled to a jury trial—only available remedies under § 502(a)(3). In conclusion, even though a few courts have interpreted Mertens to block a jury trial in ERISA actions, this is a very reaching interpretation of Mertens–which does not expressly address the jury trial issue—that most courts have not adopted.

The complete chapter can be accessed here.