Tribal court retains jurisdiction for tribal member’s disability insurance lawsuit against Assurant and Union Security

When Richard Geroux brought a long-term disability insurance underpayment complaint before the Tribal Court of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, L’Anse Reservation, Mich., the insurance companies involved, Assurant, Inc (Assurant) and Union Security Insurance Company (Union Security) immediately sought to remove his case to the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Northern Division. The insurance companies claimed that Geroux’s case fell under ERISA jurisdiction and should be considered in Federal Court.

What is at stake here? Whether the tribal court had jurisdiction. Geroux moved on August 8, 2008 to have his case sent back to tribal court, arguing that his complaint should be decided in tribal court. The Assurant and Union Security filed a counterclaim on August 21, 2008 seeking to move action to Federal Court. They also opposed Geroux’s motion to review the case at tribal council on August 25. In response, Geroux moved to dismiss Union Security’s counterclaim.

On October 15, in this environment of motions and counterclaims, the court denied Assurant and Union Security’s motion that Geroux’s reply brief (arguments for sending the case back to tribal court) be annulled. The court ruled instead to allow Assurant and Union Security to file a reply brief presenting their arguments for deciding the case in Federal Court.

The Court ordered both parties to present further evidentiary support for their positions. Geroux asked for an extension of time to accomplish this. The court gave him until December 5, 2008. Then Assurant and Union Security asked for an extension to December 12. This was also granted. On December 12th and 13th both sides filed their supplemental briefings and evidence supporting their motions. Ten days later, Assurant and Union Security filed a motion for leave to conduct jurisdictional discovery and to file their response to Geroux’s supplemental briefing of the 12th. The court ordered that the response must be filed by January 14, 2009 and set the date for a hearing before the U.S. Magistrate Judge – January 21, 2009.

At that hearing, the judge found that some jurisdictional discovery was necessary and asked Assurant and Union Security to submit a discovery plan to the court. On January 26, 2009, the insurance companies submitted a proposal requiring 180 days to accomplish the necessary research. This was approved on January 27.

During a June 17 tele-conference, the court validated the 180 day deadline. On August 26, Assurant and Union Security requested an extension of 90 days for jurisdictional discovery, and then another 30 days beyond that in which to file their response to Geroux’s supplemental brief. On August 28, the court ordered Geroux to respond to the request for extension by September 11. When a response was not received by this date, the court issued a written notice. On October 6, Geroux filed a notice of non-opposition. On October 13, the court denied the motion for an extension. After 30 days, when neither side had filed additional briefings or evidence, the court proceeded with its decision.

Here are the laws that the court took into consideration:

In general, if a civil action is brought before a state court, the defendant(s) can move the case to Federal court if the US District Court had original jurisdiction. This is automatic if the claim or right arises under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States. Otherwise, civil cases can only be moved if none of the parties in the case are residents of the state in which the case is filed.

If the defendant wants to move a case to Federal court, the burden of proof that the case should be decided within Federal jurisdiction falls upon the defendant. Assurant and Union Security tried to prove Federal jurisdiction by claiming that Geroux’s claim was based on his being a beneficiary of an “employee benefit plan” under ERISA. But ERISA provides beneficiaries the right to file civil actions to recover benefits due under the terms of a plan, to seek enforcement of rights under a plan, or to clarify future benefits under the terms of a plan.

In 2006, Congress amended ERISA to exclude tribal benefits plans from ERISA’s surveillance. While this law was not retroactive, the court still needed to determine if removal from tribal court to Federal court violated Federal law. Geroux claimed that remedies at the tribal level needed to be exhausted before the case could be sent to Federal court.

What finally determined the outcome? Assurant and Union Security were unable, after nearly a year, to support their claim that Federal court held jurisdiction over the case. Case law favored Geroux’s position and without convincing proof of jurisdiction, the Federal court preferred to let the tribal court make the first effort in sorting out the facts. The court felt no pity for the insurance company’s complaints that sending the case back to the tribe would delay the litigation process. In response, the court pointed out how the insurance companies had already delayed the process by almost a year.

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