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Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co. v. Jones-Atchison

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

August 23, 2019

HARTFORD LIFE AND ACCIDENT INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff/Counterclaim Defendant
v.
KEISHA JONES-ATCHISON, Defendant DAVID ATCHISON, SR., and FANNIE ATCHISON, Defendants/Cross-Claim Defendants And ANITRA HAAG, as Parent, Legal Guardian, and Next Friend of L.M.H., a Minor; AMBER SMITH, as Parent, Legal Guardian, and Next Friend of I.E.S., a Minor; and KRISTIE HALL, as Parent, Legal Guardian, and Next Friend of J.H., a Minor, Defendant-Intervenors/ Cross-Complainants/ Counter-Complainants

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiff/Counterclaim Defendant Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company's (“Hartford”) Motion to Dismiss Intervenor's Amended Counterclaim [Doc. No. 72]. Defendant-Intervenors/Counter-Complainants Anita Haag, Amber Smith, and Kristie Hall, as parents and next friends of minor children L.M.H., I.E.S., and J.H. (“the Children”), respectively, have responded [Doc. No. 73]. Hartford has replied [Doc. No. 75]. The matter is fully briefed and at issue.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         Hartford is the carrier of a group policy (the “Policy”) with basic life insurance benefits (and other coverages not relevant to this action) for its policy holder-Siemens Corporation (“Siemens”). David Lamare Atchison II (“Mr. Atchison”) was employed by Siemens and was a participant in the Policy. Mr. Atchison died after being shot by an unknown assailant on January 8, 2017. To date, there have been no arrests in connection with the death of Mr. Atchison, however, Ms. Keisha Jones-Atchison (“Jones”), Mr. Atchison's ex-wife, is a suspect and/or person of interest in the death of Mr. Atchison.

         Jones submitted a claim for benefits payable on Mr. Atchison's death providing no details regarding the death of Mr. Atchison. Thereafter, Mr. Atchison's father, David Lamare Atchison, Sr. (“David”), submitted an executed Preference Beneficiary Affidavit (“PBA”) in which he “testified that Decedent did not have any children or siblings.” Amended Answer and Counterclaim [Doc. No. 68] at 8.

         The succession provision of the Policy provides that:

when the insured has not named a beneficiary, the benefits will be paid in the following order: (1) to the spouse or domestic partner, if living; otherwise (2) to the then living children of the insured, if any, in equal shares; otherwise (3) to the mother and father of the insured, if then living, in equal shares; otherwise
(4) to the then living brothers and sisters of the insured, in equal shares; otherwise (5) to the estate of the insured.

         Complaint at 3-4; Amended Answer and Counterclaim at 3, 7-8. In the PBA, David listed he and his wife as parents of Mr. Atchison and claimed entitlement to “a check in the full amount of the insurance proceeds payable to me, ” pursuant to the Policy's succession provision. Amended Answer and Counterclaim at 8. David testified in the PBA that Mr. Atchison had no surviving children. Id.; Complaint at 5.

         Citing the existence of competing claims to the Policy proceeds, Hartford filed this interpleader action and the Court granted Hartford permission to deposit the proceeds into the Clerk's registry and be discharged from these proceedings. Hartford was discharged on October 19, 2017. Order [Doc. No. 22]. On January 30, 2018, Jones filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 32] seeking an award of the Policy benefits.

         After Hartford's discharge, the Children were granted leave to intervene in the case, and Jones' Motion for Summary Judgment was stricken without prejudice to refiling. Order [Doc. No. 46]. On December 17, 2018, the Children filed their Amended Answer and Counterclaim stating a claim against Hartford and cross-claims against the Atchisons.

         The Children allege that: (1) Hartford failed to conduct a reasonable search of beneficiaries and improperly distributed $225, 000 in supplemental life benefits to the Atchisons; (2) Hartford's failure to pay benefits to the Children is a violation of ERISA, fiduciary duties, and/or breach of contract; (3) the Atchisons acquired the life insurance benefits by making fraudulent misrepresentations by affidavit; (4) as a matter of law and equity, they are entitled to recover the life insurance benefits from the Atchisons; and, (5) the Atchisons tortiously interfered with their contractual relationship with Hartford. The Children contend that “the burden of recouping the wrongly-paid policy benefits should fall upon Hartford, the entity that paid the benefits to the wrong persons without conducting a reasonable search.” Amended Complaint at 10. To that end, the Children assert three claims against Hartford: (1) failure to pay benefits to the intended beneficiary in violation of ERISA; (2) breach of fiduciary duties; and, (3) breach of contract.

         Hartford moves to dismiss all of the Children's counterclaims asserting that the claims fail as a matter of law. Hartford asserts that: (1) ERISA preempts the Children's claims for violation of fiduciary duties, and/or breach of contract; and, (2) the Children fail to state a claim for which relief can be granted regarding any ERISA violation.

         STANDARD OF DECISION

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) provides that a pleading stating a claim for relief must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” To survive a Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “[C]ourts should look to the specific allegations in the complaint to determine whether they plausibly support a legal claim for relief.” Alvarado v. KOB-TV, L.L.C., 493 F.3d 1210, 1215 n.2 (10th Cir.2007) (citations omitted).

         “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; see Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1248 (10th Cir. 2008) (stating that “the degree of specificity necessary to establish plausibility and fair notice, and therefore the need to include sufficient factual allegations, depends on context”) (internal quotation omitted). Therefore, Iqbal and Twombly provide “no indication the Supreme Court intended a return to the more stringent pre-Rule 8 pleading requirements.” See Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         The Tenth Circuit has held that the Iqbal/Twombly pleading standard is “a middle ground between heightened fact pleading, which is expressly rejected, and allowing complaints that are no more than labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, which the Court stated will not do.” Khalik, 671 F.3d at 1191 (quoting Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1247). “Specific facts are not necessary”; the pleader's allegations need only provide the “defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Id. at 1192 (quoting Erickson v. Pardus,551 U.S. 89, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007)) (internal quotations omitted). “Twombly and Iqbal do not require that the complaint include all facts necessary to carry the plaintiff's burden.” Khalik, 671 F.3d at ...


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