Mackey v. Lanier Collection Agency Service, Inc

Decision Date17 June 1988
Docket NumberNo. 86-1387,86-1387
Citation108 S.Ct. 2182,486 U.S. 825,100 L.Ed.2d 836
PartiesJohn H. MACKEY, et al., Petitioners v. LANIER COLLECTION AGENCY & SERVICE, INC
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

After respondent collection agency obtained money judgments against participants in an "employee welfare benefit plan" covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), its request to garnish the debtors' plan benefits was granted by a Georgia trial court. The State Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Ga.Code Ann. § 18-4-22.1 (1982), barring the garnishment of "[f]unds or benefits of [an] . . . employee benefit plan or program subject to . . . [ERISA]," exempted plan benefits from garnishment. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed, concluding that § 18-4-22.1 was pre-empted by ERISA and that the plan was therefore subject to garnishment under the general state garnishment law.

Held:

1. Section 18-4-22.1, which singles out ERISA employee welfare benefit plans for different treatment than non-ERISA welfare plans under state garnishment procedures, is pre-empted under § 514(a) of ERISA, which supersedes any state law insofar as it "relate[s] to" ERISA-covered plans. The state statute's express reference to ERISA plans brings it within the federal law's pre-emptive reach. Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 103 S.Ct. 2890, 77 L.Ed.2d 490. Moreover, the possibility that § 18-4-22.1 was enacted to help effectuate ERISA's underlying purposes is not enough to save it from pre-emption, since § 514(a) displaces all state laws that fall within its sphere, including those that are consistent with ERISA's substantive requirements. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724, 105 S.Ct. 2380, 85 L.Ed.2d 728. Pp. 829—830.

2. Congress did not intend to pre-empt state-law garnishment of an ERISA welfare benefit plan, even where the purpose is to collect judgments against plan participants. Pp. 830-840.

(a) Unlike § 18-4-22.1, Georgia's general garnishment statute does not single out or specially mention ERISA plans of any kind. The argument that, because the general statute requires plan trustees such as petitioners to respond to garnishment orders with funds otherwise due beneficiary-debtors, and to incur substantial administrative burdens and costs, the statute consequently "relates to" the plan within the meaning of § 514(a) is refuted by certain other ERISA provisions, and by several aspects of that statute's structure. Although § 502(d) provides that a plan may "sue or be sued" as an entity for specified relief and clearly contemplates the enforcement of money judgments against a plan, and although lawsuits against ERISA plans for run-of-the-mill state-law contract or tort claims are relatively commonplace, ERISA does not provide an enforcement mechanism for collecting judgments won in either type of action. In lieu of such a provision, state-law collection methods, including garnishment, remain undisturbed by ERISA. See Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 69(a). Section 514(a)'s language does not support petitioners' attempt to distinguish, as permissible, garnishment to collect plan creditors' judgments from, as impermissible, garnishment on behalf of plan participants' judgment creditors. The fact that § 206(d)(1)'s ban on alienation or assignment is limited to pension benefits also supports the conclusion that Congress did not intend to preclude garnishment of welfare plan benefits. Section 514(a) cannot be read to protect only benefits, but not plans, from garnishment, since § 206(d)(1) demonstrates Congress' ability to distinguish between benefits and plans when it wished, and since such a construction would render § 206(d)(1) substantially redundant with § 514(a) and therefore superfluous. Pp. 831-838.

(b) Petitioners' and the United States' contention that the Retirement Equity Act of 1984—which specified that § 514(a)'s pre-emption provision does not apply to "qualified domestic relations orders"—establishes that § 514(a), as originally enacted, pre-empts state attachment and garnishment procedures on the theory that, otherwise, an amendment to save such orders would have been unnecessary, is not persuasive. An equally plausible explanation for the amendment is that Congress meant to clarify the original meaning of § 514(a) by correcting court decisions that had erroneously construed the section as pre-empting such orders. Even if petitioners' contention is correct, the opinion of a later Congress as to the meaning of a law enacted 10 years earlier does not control the issue. Rather, ERISA's language and structure demonstrate the intent of the Congress that originally enacted § 514(a) not to pre-empt state garnishment procedures. Pp. 838-840.

256 Ga. 499, 350 S.E.2d 439, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, post, p. 841.

Ernest L. Mathews, Jr., for petitioners.

Brian J. Martin, New York City, for U.S. as amicus curiae, supporting petitioners, by special leave of Court.

Maureen E. Mahoney as amicus curiae in support of the judgment below, by special order of the Court, for respondent.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue here is whether and to what extent the Georgia statutes bearing on the garnishment of funds due to participants in ERISA employee welfare benefit plans are pre-empted by the federal statute which governs such plans.

I

Petitioners are the trustees of an employee benefit plan that provides vacation and holiday benefits to eligible employees in several southeastern States. The covered workers draw their vacation benefits from the plan annually. The plan is an "employee welfare benefit plan" as defined by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1).1

Respondent is a collection agency. It sought and obtained money judgments against 23 plan participants who owed money to clients of respondent. To collect these money judg- ments, respondent instituted an action in a Georgia trial court seeking to garnish the debtors' plan benefits. The trial court granted the garnishment request. App. to Pet. for Cert. A-21. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a Georgia statute, Ga.Code Ann. § 18-4-22.1 (1982),2 barring the garnishment of "[f]unds or benefits of [an] . . . employee benefit plan or program subject to . . . [ERISA]," exempted plan benefits from garnishment. 178 Ga.App. 467, 470, 343 S.E.2d 492, 495 (1986).

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed. 256 Ga. 499, 350 S.E.2d 439 (1986). It agreed that § 18-4-22.1 by its terms barred this garnishment action, but concluded that the section was pre-empted by ERISA "since it purports to regulate garnishment of ERISA funds and benefits, a matter specifically provided for" in the federal scheme. Id., at 501, 350 S.E.2d, at 442. Through an analysis of ERISA's preemption provisions, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that Congress had not barred garnishment of employee welfare benefits, even though employee pension benefits were so protected. See 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d) (1982 ed. and Supp. IV). Since § 18-4-22.1 "prohibits that which the federal statute permits," the Georgia Supreme Court held, the state law was "in conflict with" the federal scheme, and therefore pre-empted by it. 256 Ga., at 501, 350 S.E.2d, at 442. Consequently, the plan was subject to garnishment under the general state garnishment law, Ga.Code Ann. § 18-4-20 et seq. (1982 and Supp.1987).

Because of conflicting decisions among the courts on the questions presented here, we granted certiorari. 483 U.S 1004, 107 S.Ct. 3227, 97 L.Ed.2d 733 (1987). We now affirm the Georgia Supreme Court's judgment.3

II

ERISA § 514(a) pre-empts "any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan" covered by the statute. 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). We believe that under our precedents, Ga.Code Ann. § 18-4-22.1 is such a state law.

The Georgia statute at issue here expressly refers to—indeed, solely applies to—ERISA employee benefit plans. See n. 2, supra. "A law 'relates to' an employee benefit plan, in the normal sense of the phrase, if it has a connection with or reference to such a plan." Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 96-97, 103 S.Ct. 2890, 2900, 77 L.Ed.2d 490 (1983) (emphasis added). On several occasions since our decision in Shaw, we have reaffirmed this rule, concluding that state laws which make "reference to" ERISA plans are laws that "relate to" those plans within the meaning of § 514(a). See, e.g., Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 47-48, 107 S.Ct. 1549, 1552-1553, 95 L.Ed.2d 39 (1987); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, 471 U.S. 724, 739, 105 S.Ct. 2380, 2389, 85 L.Ed.2d 728 (1985). In fact, we have virtually taken it for granted that state laws which are "specifically designed to affect employee benefit plans" are pre-empted under § 514(a). Cf. Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, supra, 481 U.S., at 47-48, 107 S.Ct., at 1553; Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., supra, 463 U.S., at 98, 103 S.Ct., at 2900.

The possibility that § 18-4-22.1 was enacted by the Georgia Legislature to help effectuate ERISA's underlying purposes—the view of the Georgia Court of Appeals below, see 178 Ga.App., at 467, 343 S.E.2d, at 493—is not enough to save the state law from pre-emption. "The pre-emption provision [of § 514(a) ] . . . displace[s] all state laws that fall within its sphere, even including state laws that are consistent with ERISA's substantive requirements." Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Massachusetts, supra, 471 U.S., at 739, 105 S.Ct., at 2389. The decision in Shaw particularly underscores this point. There, we found a New York antidiscrimination statute pre-empted under § 514(a), even though Congress had not expressed any intent in ERISA to approve of...

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