The Fourth Circuit recently gave a succinct reminder about the difference between ordinary conflict preemption and complete preemption, and how those two doctrines impact federal jurisdiction. In Moon v. BWX Technologies, Inc., 2012 WL 5992209 (4th Cir. Dec. 3, 2012), the court considered whether the district court correctly denied a motion to remand a case that had been removed from state court. Briefly, the facts were that the plaintiff’s husband enrolled in a life insurance benefit plan shortly before he retired. After his post-retirement death, his wife sought the insurance benefit, and her claim was denied. She then sued the employer in state court (apparently acknowledging that the benefit plan did not cover the loss, so she did not sue the insurer), arguing that the employer’s communications with her husband had created a non-ERISA contractual obligation. The employer removed the case to federal court, and the district court denied a motion to remand before addressing the merits of the claim.

In disposing of plaintiff’s argument that remand was appropriate, the Fourth Circuit discussed the “crucial distinctions between the two types of preemption contemplated by ERISA: ordinary conflict preemption and complete preemption[,]” and how those distinctions concern federal jurisdiction.

Ordinary conflict preemption is set forth in 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a), and supersedes state laws insofar as they “relate to” an ERISA plan. But, the court explained, “ERISA pre-emption of a state claim, without more, does not convert a state claim into an action arising under federal law.” (quoting Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 64, 107 S.Ct. 1542, 95 L.Ed.2d 55 (1987)). Therefore, when ERISA is simply asserted as a defense to a state law claim, the state claim is not converted into a federal claim, and there is no federal question giving rise to removal jurisdiction.

In contrast, “complete preemption” does give rise to removal jurisdiction. Properly understood as a jurisdictional doctrine, complete preemption arises only when plaintiff’s state law claims come within the scope of ERISA’s civil enforcement provision, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a). Accordingly, if a claimant seeks 1132(a) relief under the guise of state law, “ERISA completely preempts the purported state law claims and converts them into what they actually are: federal claims.”

It is probably not easy to plead a claim that is preempted by ERISA, but that does not seek relief within the scope of 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a). One example of such a claim arose in Franchise Tax Bd. of State of Cal. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust for S. California, 463 U.S. 1, 3-4, 103 S. Ct. 2841, 2843, 77 L. Ed. 2d 420 (1983), which concerned an attempt by state tax authorities to collect unpaid state income taxes by levying on funds held in trust for the taxpayers under an ERISA-covered vacation benefit plan. The Court held that, while there might be ordinary preemption, the federal courts did not have jurisdiction to decide that because there was no complete preemption: “even though the Court of Appeals may well be correct that ERISA precludes enforcement of the State’s levy in the circumstances of this case, an action to enforce the levy is not itself preempted by ERISA.”