ERISA-District Court Rules That Claim For Intentional Infliction Of Emotional Distress Is Not Preempted By ERISA

In Kresich v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., No. 15-cv-05801 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 4, 2016), plaintiff John Kresich (the “Plaintiff”) asserted a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) arising from Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s (the “Defendant”) conduct during the processing of his claim for long-term disability benefits. Defendant moves for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Plaintiff’s complaint is preempted under section 514(a) of ERISA. After reviewing the case, the District Court (the “Court”) denied Defendant’s motion.

As to ERISA preemption, the Court said that there are two pieces to ERISA’s preemption rule. First, ERISA preempts state laws that “relate to” an ERISA plan. 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). Second, ERISA preemption bars state-law causes of action that fall within the scope of ERISA’s comprehensive scheme of civil remedies to enforce ERISA’s provisions, even if those causes of action would not necessarily be preempted by § 1144(a). In this case, Defendant’s motion is based on the second piece. It argues there can be no dispute that Plaintiff’s action is for the alleged improper processing of a claim for benefits under an insured employee benefit plan and that his IIED claim therefore springs from the handling and disposition of his claim.

However, the Court did not accept this argument. The Court noted that there is no allegation in Plaintiff’s complaint that his benefits have been granted or denied, and Plaintiff’s suit is not based on the processing of his claim. It said that courts have denied preemption where the common law or state law claims are too tangentially related to the administration of the employee benefits plans. To avoid preemption, the Court must determine whether Plaintiff’s IIED claim relies on a legal duty that arises independently of ERISA and that would exist whether or not an ERISA plan existed. Reviewing case-law precedent, the Court found that Plaintiff’s allegations involve harassing and oppressive conduct independent of the duties of administering an ERISA plan and are only tangentially related to the administration of the plan in question. Therefore, no preemption.