Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Complete Preemption Definition:

American constitutional law; the conversion of a state law cause of action into a federal claim.

US flagIn SPGGC v Ayotte, Justice Torruella wrote:

"Complete preemption exists where a federal cause of action has completely supplanted a state law cause of action, and thus converts the state claim into a federal claim. Complete preemption allows a plaintiff to bring a previously state-law claim into federal court under federal question jurisdiction."

In Smart v Local 702, Justice Ripple of the United States Court of Appeals expanded on the concept:

"Ordinarily, a court must determine the presence or absence of a federal question by examining only the plaintiff's well-pleaded complaint... [F]ederal preemption ordinarily does not provide a basis for asserting federal jurisdiction over a claim.

"There is, however, an exception to this general rule. On occasion, the Court has concluded that the preemptive force of a statute is so extraordinary that it converts an ordinary state common-law complaint into one stating a federal claim for purposes of the well-pleaded complaint rule. This independent corollary to the well-pleaded complaint rule is known as the complete preemption doctrine. Once an area of state law has been completely pre-empted, any claim purportedly based on that pre-empted state law is considered, from its inception, a federal claim, and therefore arises under federal law.

"Complete preemption is a term that describes the specific situation in which a federal law not only preempts a state law to some degree but also substitutes a federal cause of action for the state cause of action, thereby manifesting Congress's intent to extend the jurisdiction of the federal courts to such cases. To determine whether a claim is subject to complete preemption, we ask whether Congress clearly intended completely to replace state law with federal law and create a federal forum.

"We never have articulated a precise method for discerning congressional intent in this area. A logical first step in this analysis is determining whether the state claim is displaced by federal law under an ordinary preemption analysis. If a federal statute preempts the state action, we then look to whether Congress created a federal cause of action to take the place of the state action.... [T]he ability to bring suit under federal law is an element of complete preemption."

Three months earlier, the Eighth Circuit of that same Court, Justice Shepherd presiding, included this footnote in his opinion in Firstcom v Qwest:

"Ordinary preemption is distinct from complete preemption which is a jurisdictional doctrine that applies where the federal preemptive power is complete. The Supreme Court has found complete preemption in only three classes of cases: Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (LMRA, 301), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1975 (ERISA; 29 U.S.C. §1001-1461); and the National Bank Act (12 U.S.C. §38)."


  • Firstcom Inc. v. Qwest Corp., 555 F. 3d 669
  • Smart v. Local 702 Intern. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 562 F. 3d 798 (2009)
  • SPGGC v. Ayotte, 488 F. 3d 525 (United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit, 2007)

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