A recent case from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania reaffirms the basic principle that a threshold element of any ERISA claim is pleading the existence of an ERISA plan.

In Dixon v. Washington, No. 18-cv-2838, 2018 WL 5046033 (E.D. Pa.), plaintiffs—members of the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Fairview—brought suit against the Church’s elected Pastor and CEO, and the members he selected to serve on the Church’s Board of Directors.

Plaintiffs asserted both state law claims and a breach of fiduciary duty claim under ERISA. The ERISA claim alleged that the defendant pastor stole money collected to award scholarships to two church members, who had never received the promised benefits, and misappropriated funds from the sale of real estate and from a FEMA grant intended to cover repairs related to damages caused by a flood. The ERISA claim did not allege the existence of an ERISA plan, a pre-requisite for any ERISA claim.

Defendants moved to dismiss both for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim for relief that was plausible on its face.

The court first considered whether it had subject matter jurisdiction. Because the complaint asserted claims arising under § 409 of ERISA, the court concluded that it presented a valid federal question. Accordingly, the court held that it could not dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Having found that it had subject matter jurisdiction from the face of the complaint, the court considered whether plaintiffs had presented a plausible claim for relief. Here, the court found the complaint deficient, holding that plaintiffs had not plead enough facts to make their ERISA claim plausible. Specifically, without deciding whether plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the misappropriation of funds constituted a breach of fiduciary duty, the court found that plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts to show the involvement of a plan covered by ERISA, which was necessary to make an ERISA claim plausible. The court thus dismissed the complaint, noting plaintiffs could amend the complaint if they could plead sufficient detail to make their claim plausible.

While the holding of the case is relatively straightforward—a claim under ERISA must involve a plan covered by ERISA—this case highlights the importance of evaluating whether a complaint is sufficiently pled as to all required elements.