463 U.S. 1 (1983), 82-695, Franchise Tax Bd. of State of Cal. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust For Southern California

Docket Nº:No. 82-695.
Citation:463 U.S. 1, 103 S.Ct. 2841, 77 L.Ed.2d 420
Case Date:June 24, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court

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463 U.S. 1 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 2841, 77 L.Ed.2d 420




No. 82-695.

United States Supreme Court.

June 24, 1983

Argued April 19, 1983.

[103 S.Ct. 2842] Syllabus[*]


Appellee Construction Laborers Vacation Trust for Southern California (CLVT) was established by an agreement between construction industry employer associations and a labor union to provide a mechanism for administering the provisions of a collective-bargaining agreement granting construction workers a yearly paid vacation. The trust qualifies as a "welfare benefit plan" within the meaning of § 3 of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and hence is subject to regulation under ERISA. Appellant California Franchise Tax Board filed a complaint in California state court against CLVT and its trustees, alleging two causes of action: (1) that CLVT had failed to comply with certain tax levies issued under a California statute, thereby becoming liable for damages for such failure, and (2) that, in view of the defendants' contention that ERISA pre-empted state law and that the trustees lacked power to honor the levies, a judgment be issued declaring the parties' respective rights. CLVT removed the case to Federal District Court, which, after denying appellant's motion for remand to the state court, held that ERISA did not pre-empt the State's power to levy on the funds held in trust by CLVT. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The case is not within the removal jurisdiction conferred by 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Pp. 2845 - 2856.

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(a) Where there is no diversity of citizenship between the parties, as in this case, the propriety of removal turns on whether the case falls within the original "federal question" jurisdiction of United States district courts under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (1976 ed., Supp. V). Under the "well-pleaded complaint" rule, a defendant may not remove such a case to federal court unless the plaintiff's complaint establishes that the case "arises under" federal law within the meaning of § 1331, and it may not be removed on the basis of a federal defense, including the defense of pre-emption, even if the defense is anticipated in the complaint and both parties admit that the defense is the only question truly at issue. Pp. 2845 - 2848.

(b) For appellant's first cause of action, a straightforward application of the well-pleaded complaint rule precludes original federal-court jurisdiction, and thus the cause of action was not removable. California law establishes a set of conditions, without reference to federal law, under which a tax levy may be enforced; federal law becomes relevant only by way of a defense to an obligation created entirely by state law, and then only if appellant has made out a valid claim for relief under state law. Pp. 2848 - 2849.

(c) Nor is appellant's second cause of action removable to federal court. Under the federal jurisdictional statutes, federal courts do not have original jurisdiction, nor do they acquire jurisdiction on removal, STATE OF CAL V CONSTRUCTION LABORERS VACATION TRUST FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 103 S.Ct. 2841(1983)] [103 S.Ct. 2843] when a federal question is presented by a complaint for a state declaratory judgment, and where, if the plaintiff had sought a federal declaratory judgment, federal jurisdiction would be barred by Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 70 S.Ct. 876, 94 L.Ed. 1194, under which federal jurisdiction is lacking if, but for the availability of the federal declaratory judgment procedure, a federal claim would arise only as a defense to a state-created action. The situation presented by a State's suit for a declaration of the validity of state law is sufficiently removed from the spirit of necessity and careful limitation of federal district court jurisdiction that informed this Court's statutory interpretation in Skelly Oil and Gully v. First National Bank in Meridian, 299 U.S. 109, 57 S.Ct. 96, 81 L.Ed. 70 to convince the Court that, until Congress informs it otherwise, such a suit is not within the district courts' original jurisdiction. Accordingly, the same suit brought originally in state court is not removable. Pp. 2849 - 2853.

(d) A suit by state tax authorities under a statute like the California tax levy statute involved here does not "arise" under ERISA. The State's right to enforce its tax levies is not of central concern to the federal statute. Avco Corp. v. Machinists, 390 U.S. 557, 88 S.Ct. 1235, 20 L.Ed.2d 126, distinguished. Even though ERISA may preclude enforcement of the State's levy in the circumstances of this case, an action to enforce the levy is not itself preempted by ERISA. On the face of a well-pleaded complaint there are

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many reasons completely unrelated to ERISA's provisions and purposes why the State may or may not be entitled to the relief it seeks. Moreover, ERISA does not provide an alternative cause of action in the State's favor to enforce its rights. Nor does appellant's second cause of action arise under ERISA. ERISA enumerates the parties entitled to seek a declaratory judgment under § 502 of that Act; it does not provide anyone other than participants, beneficiaries, or fiduciaries of an ERISA-covered plan with an express cause of action for a declaratory judgment on the issues of this case. A suit for similar relief by some other party does not "arise under" that provision. Pp. 2855 - 2853.

679 F.2d 1307 (9th Cir., 1982), vacated and remanded.


Patti S. Kitching, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for appellant. With her on the briefs were John K. Van De Kamp, Attorney General, and Edmond B. Mamer, Deputy Attorney General.

James P. Watson argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief wereGeorge M. Cox and John S. Miller, Jr.*

* William D. Dexter filed a brief for the Multistate Tax Commission as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Solicitor General Lee, Stuart A. Smith, T. Timothy Ryan, Jr., Karen I. Ward, and Allen H. Feldman for the United States; by J. Albert Woll, Laurence Gold, and George Kaufmann for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; byThomas E. Stanton, Jr., and Victor J. Van Bourg for the Boards of Trustees of the Carpenters Vacation and Holiday Trust Fund for Northern California et al.; and by Eugene B. Granof and George J. Pantos for the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC).

Joseph I. Lieberman, Attorney General, Christina G. Dunnell, Assistant Attorney General, and Ann Thacher Anderson filed a brief for the State of Connecticut et al. as amici curiae.

Patti S. Kitching, Los Angeles, Cal., for appellant.

James P. Watson, Los Angeles, Cal., for appellees.


Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The principal question in dispute between the parties is whether the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 88 Stat. 829, codified at 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq., permits state tax authorities

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to collect unpaid state income taxes by levying on funds held in trust for the taxpayers under an ERISA-covered vacation benefit plan. The issue is an important one, which affects thousands of federally regulated trusts and all non-federal tax collection systems, and it must eventually receive a definitive, uniform resolution. Nevertheless, for reasons involving perhaps more history than logic, we hold that the lower federal courts had no jurisdiction to decide the question in the case before us, and we vacate the judgment and remand the case with instructions to remand it to the state court from which it was removed.


None of the relevant facts is in dispute. Appellee Construction Laborers Vacation Trust for Southern California (CLVT)1 is a trust established by an agreement between four associations of employers active in the construction industry in Southern California and the Southern California District Council of Laborers, an arm of the District Council and affiliated locals of the Laborers'STATE OF CAL V CONSTRUCTION LABORERS VACATION TRUST FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 103 S.Ct. 2841(1983)] [103 S.Ct. 2844] International Union of North America. The purpose of the agreement and trust was to establish a mechanism for administering the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement that grants construction workers a yearly paid vacation. 2 The trust agreement expressly proscribes any assignment, pledge, or encumbrance of

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funds held in trust by CLVT.3 The plan that CLVT administers is unquestionably an "employee welfare benefit plan" within the meaning of § 3 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1), and CLVT and its individual trustees are thereby subject to extensive regulation under titles I and III of ERISA.

Appellant Franchise Tax Board is a California agency charged with enforcement of that State's personal income tax law. California law authorizes appellant to require any person in possession of "credits or other personal property belonging to a taxpayer" "to withhold ... the amount of any tax, interest, or penalties due from the taxpayer ... and to transmit the amount withheld to the Franchise Tax Board." Cal.Rev. & Tax Code Ann. § 18817 (West Supp.1982). Any person who, upon notice by the Franchise Tax Board, fails to comply with its request to withhold and to transmit funds becomes personally liable for the amounts identified in the notice. § 18818.

In June 1980, the Franchise Tax Board filed a complaint in state court against CLVT and its trustees. Under the heading "First Cause of Action," appellant alleged that CLVT had failed to comply with three levies issued under § 18817,4 concluding

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with the allegation that it had been "damaged in a sum ... not to exceed $380.56 plus interest from June 1, 1980." App...

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