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Sirva Relocation, LLC v. Tynes

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 7, 2014

SIRVA RELOCATION, LLC and AETNA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiffs,
v.
JULIAN T. TYNES, SUNILA THOMAS-GEORGE and JAMIE R. WILLIAMSON, in their official capacities as COMMISSIONERS OF THE MASSACHUSETTS COMMISSION AGAINST DISCRIMINATION, MASSACHUSETTS COMMISSION AGAINST DISCRIMINATION, COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS and DAVID KNIGHT, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

NATHANIEL M. GORTON, District Judge.

In this case, the Court is asked to decide a long-running dispute in which employee David Knight ("Knight") alleges disability discrimination by his employer Sirva Relocation, LLC ("Sirva") and its insurance provider Aetna Life Insurance Company ("Aetna") (collectively, "plaintiffs"). Knight filed his original complaint against Sirva with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ("MCAD") in 2007, alleging discrimination on the basis of the termination of benefits for his claimed mental disability. Since then, MCAD has intermittently investigated Knight's case. Plaintiffs, in their initial response and ever since, maintain that Knight's claim is preempted by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., and, accordingly, does not belong in a Massachusetts state administrative tribunal.

In October, 2013, troubled by the MCAD's prolonged failure to address what it sees as a clear case of statutory preemption, plaintiffs filed a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction in this federal court seeking redress. Pending before the Court are plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction declaring that Knight's claims are preempted and a permanent injunction barring MCAD from any further investigation or proceedings and the defendants' motions to dismiss plaintiffs' claims.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

Plaintiff Sirva is a company that provides a range of services related to moving and housing. It provides various benefits to its employees, including long-term disability benefits through a policy issued and administered by Aetna. Relevant here, the policy had no time limits for physical disabilities but provided for only 24 months of benefits for certain mental disorders, namely any disability caused by a condition that is not a medically determinable physical impairment.

Knight was a Sirva employee who, in November, 2004, stopped working at Sirva because of a mental disorder and began receiving long-term disability benefits. In December, 2006, after 24 months, Aetna informed Knight that his disability benefits had terminated effective November 30, 2006, pursuant to the terms of Aetna's plan.

B. Procedural History

In September, 2007, Knight filed a Charge of Discrimination with MCAD alleging that Aetna's plan violates M.G.L., c. 151B, § 4, and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., by unlawfully differentiating between mental and physical disabilities. Shortly thereafter, plaintiffs moved to dismiss, arguing that any claim related to Knight's benefits plan while working at Sirva was preempted by ERISA. In April, 2010, more than two years later, MCAD Commissioner Sunila Thomas-George ("Commissioner Thomas-George") issued a short ruling denying plaintiffs' motion without prejudice. The ruling acknowledged that any determination of the legality of an employee benefit plan would be preempted by ERISA but denied the motion on the grounds that MCAD could not yet determine whether the subject plan is, in fact, an "employee benefit plan" under ERISA.

MCAD took no further action until April, 2012, when an MCAD investigator issued Requests for Information to Aetna and Sirva focusing on all of the factual allegations at issue in Knight's complaint. The Requests were not limited to the ERISA preemption issue. In October, 2012, five years after Knight filed his initial complaint with MCAD, Commissioner Thomas-George issued a Probable Cause Finding indicating that MCAD found probable cause to credit Knight's allegations. Because the finding did not squarely address the ERISA preemption issue, plaintiffs moved for reconsideration which was denied.

MCAD subsequently issued a discovery order and set a "public hearing, " MCAD's version of a trial, for January, 2014. At the public hearing, MCAD's commissioners planned to hear evidence on all material issues of fact, including the issue of ERISA preemption.

On October 8, 2013, frustrated with the pace of the proceedings and doubtful that they would receive a full and fair opportunity to assert their ERISA preemption argument in the MCAD proceeding, plaintiffs filed a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction in this Court.[1] Because of plaintiffs' complaint, the January, 2014, MCAD public hearing was stayed. After a brief extension of time, MCAD and Knight each separately filed motions to dismiss and oppositions to plaintiffs' motion, both arguing that the Court should abstain from hearing plaintiffs' claim under Younger v. Harris. 401 U.S. 37 (1971) . On December 10, 2013, in an unrelated but significant development, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs , 134 S.Ct. 584 (2013), which addressed the scope of Younger abstention. Perceiving the potential impact of this late development, the Court directed both parties to file supplemental briefs with respect to the impact of the Sprint decision on the subject motions prior to the motion hearing.

On December 19, 2013, the Court held a hearing on the pending motions. Thereafter, first in February and then in March, 2014, plaintiffs filed notices to alert the Court to recent judicial opinions relevant to the issues raised in this ...


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