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U.S. Supreme Court

Franchise Tax Bd. v. Construction Laborers, 463 U.S. 1 (1983)

Franchise Tax Bd. v. Construction Laborers

Vacation Trust for Southern California

No. 82-695.

Argued April 19, 1983

Decided June 24, 1983

463 U.S. 1


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 Employee 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 preempted 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 preempt 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. 465 U. S. 7-28.

Page 463 U. S. 2

(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 preemption, even if the defense is anticipated in the complaint and both parties admit that the defense is the only question truly at issue. Pp. 463 U. S. 7-12.

(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. 463 U. S. 13-14.

(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, 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, 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, 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. 463 U. S. 14-22.

(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, 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

Page 463 U. S. 3

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. 463 U. S. 22-27.

679 F.2d 1307, vacated and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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