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Spinelli v. Gaughan

filed: December 9, 1993.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. D.C. No. CV-89-00574-HDM. Clarence C. Newcomer, District Judge, Presiding.

Before: Alex Kozinski, David R. Thompson and Thomas G. Nelson, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Kozinski.

Author: Kozinski

KOZINSKI, Circuit Judge.

Appellant Christine Holt Spinelli sued claiming she was fired in retaliation for exercising her rights under ERISA. We consider whether she was entitled to a jury trial.


Prior to her discharge, Spinelli served as a bartender at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. On July 19, twelve days before being fired, she wrote a letter to Michael Gaughan, the managing partner of Gold Coast. In this letter, Spinelli sought certain information about the health plan serving Gold Coast's employees. A return receipt shows Spinelli's letter arrived on July 26. On July 31, she was fired. She never received a response to her letter.

In the district court, Spinelli claimed that the timing was more than a coincidence, that she was fired for calling her employer to task about employee benefits. The employer responded that Spinelli was fired for legitimate reasons which we need not discuss here. Suffice it to say the record amply supports the district court's finding that Spinelli was not discharged in retaliation for exercising rights under ERISA, although it would have supported a contrary finding as well. Since there was, so to speak, a horse race, it became significant who the trier of fact was. Spinelli made a proper jury demand but the district Judge set the case for a bench trial, relying on our cases which held that jury trials are generally unavailable under ERISA. Nevill v. Shell Oil Co., 835 F.2d 209, 212-13 (9th Cir. 1987); Blau v. Del Monte Corp., 748 F.2d 1348, 1357 (9th Cir. 1985). Spinelli asks us to reconsider these cases in light of intervening Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Seventh Amendment. See, e.g., Chauffeurs, Teamsters & Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558, 108 L. Ed. 2d 519, 110 S. Ct. 1339 (1990); Granfinanciera, S.A. v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33, 106 L. Ed. 2d 26, 109 S. Ct. 2782 (1989); Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412, 95 L. Ed. 2d 365, 107 S. Ct. 1831 (1987).*fn1


The Seventh Amendment provides that "in Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved . . . ." U.S. CONST. amend. VII. It's not always clear what amounts to a "Suit[ ] at common law" within the meaning of the Seventh Amendment. We know, though, that the jury right is not limited to actions that actually existed at common law, but extends to actions analogous thereto. Tull, 481 U.S. at 417.

In a recent series of cases, the Supreme Court has provided a methodology for determining whether rights created, modified or preempted by federal statutes are analogous to those existing at common law. First, the Court has said, we must look at the nature of the right to determine whether it is analogous to common law rights. Terry, 494 U.S. at 565. Second, we must examine the remedies provided to see whether they are legal or equitable in nature. Id. As the Supreme Court has told us four times, the latter inquiry is the more important. Granfinanciera, 492 U.S. at 42 ("The second stage of this analysis is more important than the first."); Terry, 494 U.S. at 565 ("The second inquiry is the more important in our analysis."); Tull, 481 U.S. at 421 (quoting Curtis v. Loether, 415 U.S. 189, 196, 94 S. Ct. 1005 39 L. Ed. 2d 260 (1974)) ("We reiterate our previously expressed view that characterizing the relief sought is 'more important' than finding a precisely analogous common-law cause of action in determining whether the Seventh Amendment guarantees a jury trial."); Curtis, 415 U.S. at 195-96 ("This cause of action is analogous to a number of tort actions recognized at common law. More important, the relief sought here - actual and punitive damages - is the traditional form of relief offered in the courts of law.") (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted).


ERISA section 510 makes it "unlawful for any person to discharge . . . a participant or beneficiary for exercising any right to which he is entitled under the provisions of an employee benefit plan . . . ." 29 U.S.C. § 1140. To enforce these rights, section 510 incorporates the remedies of section 502, which in turn authorizes an aggrieved participant or beneficiary to bring a civil action "(A) to enjoin any [violative] act or practice . . ., or (B) to obtain other appropriate equitable relief . . . ." Id. § 1132(a)(3). Following the Supreme Court's guidance, we ask two questions: First, is the action analogous to a common law action? Second, are the remedies legal or equitable?

A. Nature of the Action

In the few Supreme Court cases classifying a particular action as legal or equitable, the Court has generally looked for an analogy to some action known when the Seventh Amendment was adopted. See, e.g., Terry, 494 U.S. at 566 ("We must therefore look for an analogous cause of action that existed in the 18th century to determine whether the nature of this duty of fair representation suit is legal or equitable."); Granfinanciera, 492 U.S. at 43 ("There is no dispute that actions to recover preferential or fraudulent transfers were often brought at law in late 18th-century England."); Tull, 481 ...

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