How Courts Interpret the Meaning of 'Civil Action' as Applied to Benefit Disputes Under ERISA

34 Pages Posted: 28 Jan 2014 Last revised: 13 Feb 2014

Date Written: January 26, 2014


Congress authorized claimants seeking employee benefits to bring a "civil action" to recover benefits due or obtain appropriate equitable relief. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure contemplate only one form of civil action; and civil actions are to be adjudicated utilizing the procedures specified by the civil procedure Rules and by the Federal Rules of Evidence. Yet federal courts have denied ERISA benefit claimants the right to take discovery normally permitted in civil actions, the right to trial by jury, and even, in most cases, the right to a trial in open court involving the examination and cross-examination of witnesses.

This article explores how the courts developed a quasi-administrative law regime governing ERISA benefit disputes despite Supreme Court rulings defining the contours of what a "civil action" should consist of. The article further examines how ERISA cases are litigated and the scope of ERISA adjudications. Questions as to whether the current regime for litigating ERISA cases violates claimants’ Constitutional due process rights are also raised, along with a discussion as to whether remands of ERISA cases violate the finality rule of Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

Keywords: ERISA, civil action, litigation, scope of review, due process, remands, jury trials

Suggested Citation

DeBofsky, Mark D., How Courts Interpret the Meaning of 'Civil Action' as Applied to Benefit Disputes Under ERISA (January 26, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Mark D. DeBofsky (Contact Author)

DeBofsky & Associates, P.C. ( email )

200 W. Madison St.
Suite 2670
Chicago, IL 60606
United States
312-561-4040 (Phone)
312-929-0309 (Fax)


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