In the case of In Re: George W. Mathias, No. 16-308 (7th Cir. 2017), a mandamus petition raised a question of first impression in the Seventh 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. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said that it agrees, and joins the Sixth Circuit in holding that ERISA’s venue provision does not invalidate a forum-selection clause contained in plan documents.