certiorari to the Supreme Court of Texas

No. 89-1298. Argued October 9, 1990 -- Decided December 3, 1990

After petitioner company fired respondent McClendon, he filed a wrongful discharge action under various state law tort and contract theories, alleging that a principal reason for his termination was the company's desire to avoid contributing to his pension fund. The Texas court granted the company summary judgment, and the State Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that McClendon's employment was terminable at will. The State Supreme Court reversed and remanded for trial, holding that public policy required recognition of an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. Therefore, recovery would be permitted in a wrongful discharge action if the plaintiff could prove that "the principal reason for his termination was the employer's desire to avoid contributing to or paying benefits under the employee's pension fund." In distinguishing federal cases holding similar claims pre-empted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the court reasoned that McClendon was seeking future lost wages, recovery for mental anguish, and punitive damages rather than lost pension benefits.

Held: ERISA's explicit language and its structure and purpose demonstrate a congressional intent to pre-empt a state common law claim that an employee was unlawfully discharged to prevent his attainment of benefits under an ERISA-covered plan. Pp. 3-11.

(a) The cause of action in this case is expressly pre-empted by 514(a) of ERISA, which broadly declares that that statute supersedes all state laws (including decisions having the effect of law) that "relate to" any covered employee benefit plan. In order to prevail on the cause of action, as formulated by the Texas Supreme Court, a plaintiff must plead, and the trial court must find, that an ERISA plan exists and the employer had a pension-defeating motive in terminating the employment. Because the existence of a plan is a critical factor in establishing liability, and the trial court's inquiry must be directed to the plan, this judicially created cause of action "relate[s] to" an ERISA plan. Cf. Mackey v. Lanier Collection Agency & Service, Inc., and Fort Halifax Packing Co. v. Coyne, 482 U.S. 1, 12, 23, distinguished. In arguing that the plan is irrelevant to the cause of action because all that is at issue is the employer's improper motive, Mc Clendon misses the point, which is that under the state court's analysis there simply is no cause of action if there is no plan. Similarly unavailing is McClendon's argument that 514(c)(2) -- which defines "State" to include any state instrumentality purporting to regulate the terms and conditions of covered plans -- causes 514(a) to pre-empt only those state laws that affect plan terms, conditions, or administration and not those that focus on the employer's termination decision. That argument misreads 514(c)(2) and consequently misapprehends its purpose of expanding ERISA's general definition of "State" to "include" state instrumentalities whose actions might not otherwise be considered state law for pre-emption purposes; would render 514(a)'s "relate to" language superfluous, since Congress need only have said that "all" state laws would be pre-empted; and is foreclosed by this Court's precedents, see Mackey, supra, at 828, and n. 2, 829. Pre-emption here is also supported by 514(a)'s goal of ensuring uniformity in pension law, since allowing state based actions like the one at issue might subject plans and plan sponsors to conflicting substantive requirements developed by the courts of each jurisdiction. Pp. 4-8.

(b) The Texas cause of action is also pre-empted because it conflicts directly with an ERISA cause of action. McClendon's claim falls squarely within ERISA 510 which prohibits the discharge of a plan participant "for the purpose of interfering with [his] attainment of any right . . . under the plan." However, that in itself does not imply pre-emption of state remedies absent "special features" warranting pre-emption. See, e. g., English v. General Electric Co., 496 U. S. ---, ---. Such a "special featur[e]" exists in the form of 502(a), which authorizes a civil action by a plan participant to enforce ERISA's or the plan's terms, gives the federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction of such actions, and has been held to be the exclusive remedy for rights guaranteed by ERISA, including those provided by 510, Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 52, 54-55. Thus, the lower court's attempt to distinguish this case as not one within ERISA's purview is without merit. Moreover, since there is no basis in 502(a)'s language for limiting ERISA actions to only those which seek "pension benefits," it is clear that the relief requested here is well within the power of federal courts; the fact that a particular plaintiff is not seeking recovery of pension benefits is no answer to a pre-emption argument. Pp. 8-11.

779 S. W. 2d 69, reversed.

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II-B, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II-A, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined.

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