Bruce G. Schwartz Plaintiff - Appellant
Ardis Bogen, formerly known as Ardis Schwartz Defendant-Appellee
Submitted: November 14, 2018
from United States District Court for the District of
Minnesota - Minneapolis
COLLOTON, SHEPHERD, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.
SHEPHERD, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Schwartz filed an action against Ardis Bogen, his ex-wife,
alleging violations of the anti-alienation provisions of the
Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29
U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., that arose from payments
he made to her for almost three decades. Bogen moved for
dismissal on the ground of res judicata, and the district
court dismissed the matter with prejudice. On
appeal, Schwartz argues the district court erred in granting
Bogen's motion. Having jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1291, we affirm.
and Bogen entered into a marital property settlement
agreement (Agreement) in New Jersey. The Agreement was
incorporated into their final judgment of divorce (Judgment),
which was entered in 1983, and provided, in relevant part,
that if Bogen remarried after January 1, 1986, but in or
before 1990, Schwartz would pay Bogen, "as equitable
distribution, a yearly sum equal to Twenty (20%) percent of
[Schwartz]'s Basic Bell System Management Pension Plan .
. . ." Schwartz retired in 1985, and Bogen remarried in
1989. Neither Schwartz nor Bogen made a request for a
qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) at either time.
From 1989 through 2016, Schwartz made payments to Bogen using
personal checks. Bogen never received distribution or payment
from the pension plan itself. Both reported the payments as
alimony on their federal tax returns.
2016, Schwartz contacted Bogen and told her he realized that,
under the terms of the Agreement, he should have stopped
making the alimony payments in 1995 because she had
remarried. Bogen, through her attorney, responded that the
payments were not alimony but rather were an equitable
distribution of the pension plan. According to Schwartz's
complaint, Bogen's attorney stated in a letter that
because the Judgment was entered before the effective date of
the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA), Pub. L. No. 98-397,
98 Stat. 1426 (1984), "the division of the pension was
done without a QDRO."
commenced an action for enforcement of her rights in New
Jersey state court, requesting, among other things, that
Schwartz be compelled to pay her 20% of his pension plan in
monthly installments. Schwartz argued that the relief Bogen
sought was "contrary to Federal law." Specifically,
he argued that the anti-alienation provisions of ERISA
prohibited sharing his pension and entitled him to a refund
of money already paid to Bogen. He also argued that there was
no QDRO to divide his pension and, without a QDRO, the
pension plan could not be divided. He did not argue that the
state court was without subject-matter jurisdiction to
entertain the alleged ERISA violations.
state court made several rulings. First, it found that the
doctrine of laches barred Schwartz's request for a refund
of the money paid to Bogen since 1995.
"Notwithstanding" this ruling, the state court then
explained that "the issue of whether these payments were
alimony or intended as equitable distribution and the
arguments [Schwartz] asserts regarding ERISA must be
addressed, as [he] may have an ongoing obligation to pay
[Bogen]." The court further found that the payments were
an equitable distribution, not alimony. The court also found
that while ERISA prohibits the assignment or alienation of
pension-plan benefits, it "was not intended to prevent
the assignment to a spouse or former spouse that is entitled
to support," citing New Jersey case law. Schwartz did
not appeal the state court's judgment.
Schwartz filed a complaint against Bogen in United States
District Court for the District of Minnesota, asserting two
counts: recovery of payments in violation of ERISA and the
REA, and a declaration of federal preemption under the
aforementioned federal laws. Bogen moved, in relevant part,
for dismissal on the ground of res judicata. The district
court granted Bogen's motion. It concluded that res
judicata applied because, among other things, the state court
determined Bogen was entitled to a portion of Schwartz's
pension, notwithstanding ERISA. The district court rejected
Schwartz's argument that res judicata did not apply
because the state court was without jurisdiction to determine
whether Bogen was entitled to a portion of his pension. It
concluded that state and federal courts have concurrent
jurisdiction to determine whether a divorce decree, judgment,
or order qualifies as a QDRO. Whether the state court
"correctly determined that the prior order was an
enforceable QDRO," the district court explained, is
irrelevant to the application of res judicata. Accordingly,
the district court dismissed the matter with prejudice. This
first time at oral argument, the parties addressed whether
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, not res judicata, more
appropriately applied to this case. Under the doctrine,
"lower federal courts are precluded from exercising
appellate jurisdiction over final state-court
judgments." Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463
(2006) (per curiam). Because the doctrine "is
jurisdictional, it may be addressed for the first time on
appeal and may be raised sua sponte." Lemonds v. St.
Louis Cnty., 222 F.3d 488, 492 (8th Cir. 2000),
abrogated on other grounds by Shelby Cnty. Health Care
Corp. v. S. Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., 855 F.3d 836,
840-41 (8th Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. Ford v. Shelby
Cnty. Health Care Corp., 138 S.Ct. 473 (2017). However,
we need not address the application of the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine in this case because it is
"permissible to bypass Rooker-Feldma ...