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Wirth v. Aetna U.S. Healthcare

November 21, 2006


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 03-cv-05406) District Judge: Honorable Harvey Bartle, III.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge


Argued January 24, 2005

Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, RENDELL and FISHER, Circuit Judges.


On appeal, Jonathan Wirth contends that the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § § 1001 et seq., does not preempt his state law claims against Aetna U.S. Healthcare ("Aetna") and, therefore, that the District Court erred in granting removal of his suit from state to federal court. Wirth also contends that, even if removal was proper, the District Court erred in holding that Pennsylvania's Health Maintenance Organization Act ("HMO Act") exempts Aetna from Wirth's claim under Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law ("MVFRL"). We have jurisdiction to review his challenge under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

We ruled on these issues in a previous non-precedential Interim Opinion, Wirth v. Aetna U.S. Healthcare, 137 Fed. Appx. 455 (3d Cir. June 9, 2005), where we opined that Wirth's claims were completely preempted by ERISA and, therefore, properly removed to federal court. However, we certified to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court the question of whether Aetna is exempt from the anti-subrogation provision of the MVFRL by virtue of the HMO Act. Now that we have received the Court's opinion on this question, we write finally and precedentially to incorporate that Court's holding as well as our own prior reasoning on the jurisdictional issue. In doing so, we will affirm the order of the District Court as to both of these issues.*fn1

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Wirth was injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by a third party tortfeasor. His treatment for those injuries was covered under an HMO healthcare agreement issued by Aetna.*fn2 Wirth recovered a settlement from the third party tortfeasor; subsequently, Aetna, who claimed it was acting within its contractual rights, asserted a subrogation lien to recover monies from that settlement.*fn3 Wirth paid Aetna $2,066.90 to release its lien and then filed a class action suit in state court alleging, inter alia, unjust enrichment and violation of section 1720 of the MVFRL, which provides that in "actions arising out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle, there shall be no right of subrogation or reimbursement from a claimant's tort recovery with respect to. . .benefits paid or payable by a program, group contract or other arrangement." 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1720.

Aetna removed the suit to federal court, contending that Wirth's claims were simply to "recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan," 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), and therefore fell within the scope of section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA. As such, Aetna argued that Wirth's claims evoked the doctrine of "complete preemption," which holds that certain federal laws so thoroughly occupy a field of regulatory interest that any claim brought within the field, however stated in the complaint, constitutes a federal claim and therefore bestows a federal court with jurisdiction. See Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 63-64 (1987). The District Court agreed, finding that ERISA was such a thoroughly robust regulatory regime, and denied Wirth's motion to remand.

After concluding it had subject matter jurisdiction over the action, the District Court proceeded to consider the specific allegations of Wirth's complaint. There, Wirth averred that, by laying claim to any portion of his tort recovery, Aetna had violated the anti-subrogation provision found at section 1720 of the MVFRL. Aetna countered, contending that section 1720 was inapplicable to an HMO like itself because the HMO Act provides that HMOs will not be governed by a state law that regulates insurance "unless such law specifically and in exact terms applies to such health maintenance organization." 40 Pa. Cons. Stat.§ 1560(a). Aetna urged that subrogation was permissible because section 1720 does not employ the term "health maintenance organization," and is therefore not specifically applicable to HMOs. The District Court agreed, finding that "there is nothing in § 1720 which specifically and in exact terms applies to HMOs," and dismissed Wirth's claims.

On appeal, Wirth challenges both the District Court's conclusion that his claims are completely preempted by section 502(a) of ERISA -- the basis for the District Court's jurisdiction over the action -- as well as the Court's interpretation of sections 1720 of the MVFRL and 1560(a) of the HMO Act.

II. Subject Matter Jurisdiction Claim: Preemption Under Section 502(a)

Wirth argues that the removal of his lawsuit to federal court, and the reclassification of his state law claim as an ERISA action, was error. Because the question is one of jurisdiction, we exercise plenary review over Wirth's challenge. Pryzbowski v. U.S. Healthcare Inc., 245 F.3d 266, 268 (3d Cir. 2001). In our Interim Opinion, we held that the District Court did not err in exercising jurisdiction over ...

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