United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
Dorothy A. Sullivan, Administrator of the Estate of Leonard L. Dobens
Kathleen M. O'Connor, New York Life Insurance Co., and Securian Life Insurance Co. Opinion No. 2016 DNH 045
N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.
civil action, removed from state court, involves dueling
claims to life insurance proceeds of a decedent who died
intestate in December 2014. Leonard L. Dobens
("Dobens"), who, at the time of his death, was
insured under a group policy issued by defendant Securian
Life Insurance Co. through a plan sponsored by Dobens's
former employer, defendant New York Life Insurance Co.
("the Securian policy"). His daughter, plaintiff
Dorothy Sullivan is the Administrator of his estate. The
other remaining defendant is Kathleen O'Connor, who was
divorced from Dobens in 2004 after what the Complaint
describes as a "short" marriage. The Securian
policy names ex-wife O'Connor as the primary beneficiary.
Sullivan claims that the Dobens's divorce decree
extinguished O'Connor's right to the policy's
benefits - roughly $70, 000 - and that the proceeds should be
distributed to Sullivan and her two brothers, Charles Dobens
and Leonard Dobens, Jr., as equal beneficiaries.
with answering the complaint, Securian filed a combined
counterclaim and crossclaim against Sullivan and
O'Connor, respectively, seeking interpleader relief with
respect to the disputed policy proceeds. See 28 U.S.C. § 1335
and Fed.R.Civ.P. 22. Securian seeks to deposit the disputed
funds with the Clerk of Court, Fed.R.Civ.P. 67, and
reimbursement (from the policy proceeds) of the legal fees
and costs associated with defending this lawsuit.
are two motions pending before the court. First, O'Connor
moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), arguing
that Sullivan's claims are pre-empted by the Employee
Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C.
§ 1001 et seq., and that Securian's interpleader action
is thereby mooted. Both Sullivan and Securian timely
objected. Shortly thereafter, Securian moved for judgment on
the pleadings with respect to its interpleader claim, to
which only O'Connor objected. See Fed R. Civ. P. 12(c).
review of the pleadings, motions, objections, the insurance
policy at issue, and certain other documents in the
administrative record, the court grants O'Connor's
motion to dismiss, but will allow Sullivan to seek leave
amend her complaint to assert a viable ERISA claim.
Securian's motion for judgment on the pleadings is
denied, without prejudice to renewal should Sullivan file an
Standard of review
survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the party
bringing the claims must make "factual allegations that
raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the
assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are
true.'" Simmons v. Galvin, 575 F.3d 24, 30
(1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In ruling on such a motion, the
court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts set forth in
the complaint and must draw all reasonable inferences in the
plaintiff's favor. See, e.g., Martino v. Forward Air,
Inc., 609 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2010). A motion for
judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is evaluated under
essentially the same standard as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See
Perez-Acevedo v. Rivero-Cubano, 520 F.3d 26, 29 (1st
Cir. 2008). With this standard in mind, the court turns to
August 2002, Dobens named "Kathleen O'Connor Dobens,
" his then-wife,  as the first beneficiary on a life
insurance policy offered by his employer, New York Life
Insurance Co. The policy was issued by a Securian subsidiary.
The policy required any beneficiary changes to be submitted
in writing. Dobens and O'Connor were divorced in New
Hampshire state court in August 2004 and had no relationship
thereafter. One provision of the permanent stipulation that
ended the divorce case is relevant here. Paragraph 11,
captioned "Life Insurance, " provides that
"[e]ach party is awarded all policies of life insurance
standing in his/her own name, free of any claim or interest
of the other and without restriction." The divorce
notwithstanding, O'Connor remained as the first
beneficiary in the Securian policy for the remainder of
Dobens's death, Securian informed Sullivan and her
siblings that O'Connor remained as the primary
beneficiary on the Securian policy. The children, however,
believe that Securian and New York Life acted in error, and
that the beneficiary designation "should have been
changed, pursuant to the wishes of Leonard Dobens, from
Kathleen O'Connor to his three (3) children."
(Complaint ¶ 23). They base this claim on the abovequoted
language in the divorce stipulation. Plaintiff also alleges
that Dobens "[a]ssured his children that Kathleen had
been removed from all benefit plans and that the life
insurance proceeds were to be paid to his children."
(Id. at ¶ 27).
filed suit in New Hampshire Superior Court in April 2015.
Securian timely removed the case to this court, citing 28
U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question jurisdiction) and
ERISA. Two counts remain following New York
Life Ins. Co.'s dismissal: 1) a request that the court
impose a constructive trust on the policy proceeds and
designate the three Dobens children as trust beneficiaries;
and 2) breach of contract (the divorce decree) against
provides for the "preemption of all state law causes of
action insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any
employee benefit plan." McMahon v. Digital Equip.
Corp., 162 F.3d 28, 36 (1st Cir. 1998); 29 U.S.C. §
1144(a). This provision is "conspicuous for its
breadth" and serves to preempt state law claims even if
their effect on ERISA is "indirect." Hampers v.
W.R. Grace & Co., Inc., 202 F.3d 44, 49 (1st Cir. 2000).
At the same time, ERISA does not preempt state law claims if
those claims "affect employee benefit plans in too
tenuous, remote or peripheral a manner ...