Wednesday, March 20, 2019

ERISA Pre-Empts Jesuit Order's Claim For Proceeds of Priest's Retirement Account

In Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus v. Cassem, (D CT, March 18, 2019), a Connecticut federal district court dismissed breach of contract claims brought by a Jesuit Province against relatives of a deceased Jesuit priest in a suit over the proceeds of the priest's retirement accounts.  Four years before his death, the priest changed the beneficiaries of the accounts from his Jesuit Order to two of his relatives. The court describes the claim at issue:
Plaintiff alleges that the change in beneficiary designation was improper because Fr. Cassem’s vows prevented him from legally acquiring personal property and, therefore, he never owned the Accounts. Plaintiff alleges that “Fr. Cassem’s final vows constitute an enforceable contract among and between the Province and Fr. Cassem, through which Fr. Cassem fully and finally renounced and assigned any and all property then owned or later acquired to the Province.”... The Province argues that because Fr. Cassem was not entitled to retain or direct property for the benefit of any party other than the Province, the original designation of the Province as the beneficiary of the Accounts remains valid and enforceable. 
The court held, however, that plaintiff's contract claim is pre-empted by ERISA, saying in part:
The statute is intended to protect beneficiaries relying on long-accumulated benefits from having to fight challenges to those benefits under disparate standards.
The court rejected the Order's argument that ERISA pre-emption violates its rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying in part:
whether or not the statute can apply to cases between private parties, RFRA certainly cannot be used as a procedural mechanism to legitimize a cause of action that contravenes federal law for a plaintiff that is contesting dismissal.... In any event, even if RFRA is applicable in the present case, it does not preclude ERISA preemption because ERISA does not impose a “substantial burden” on Plaintiff’s free exercise of religion.