Jennifer Collins v. UNUM Life Insurance Company
UNPUBLISHED PER CURIAM OPINION filed. Originating case number: 2:15-cv-00188-RGD-RJK. Copies to all parties and the district court. . [16-1636]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
JENNIFER MULLEN COLLINS,
Plaintiff - Appellant,
UNUM LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA,
Defendant - Appellee.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Virginia, at Norfolk.
Robert G. Doumar, Senior
District Judge. (2:15-cv-00188-RGD-RJK)
December 20, 2016
July 6, 2017
Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and NIEMEYER, and HARRIS, Circuit
Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.
Gregory N. Stillman, Wendy C. McGraw, HUNTON & WILLIAMS LLP,
Norfolk, Virginia; Todd M. Stenerson, HUNTON & WILLIAMS, LLP,
Washington, DC, for Appellant. David E. Constine, III, Stephen
C. Piepgrass, TROUTMAN SANDERS LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for
Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
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Former Navy SEAL David M. Collins served this country for
Afghanistan, and Kuwait.
He served in dangerous and stressful
blasts from mortar fire.
Upon retirement, he was diagnosed with
encephalopathy (CTE), a “progressive neurodegenerative disease”
caused by “repetitive brain trauma.”
treatment, Mr. Collins was found dead in the driver’s seat of
his car with a gunshot wound to his head on March 12, 2014.
death was ruled a suicide.
benefit plan that provided basic and supplemental life insurance
Insurance Company of America.
When Mr. Collins died, his widow,
Unum granted benefits under the basic policy, but
U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B) (2012).
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Both parties filed motions for
Applying the abuse-of-discretion standard of
review, the district court affirmed the denial of benefits and
found the suicide exclusion valid.
Then, the court ruled that
Unum reasonably interpreted the plan term “suicide” to include
sane and insane suicide and had substantial evidence to support
its conclusion that the exclusion applied.
motions for summary judgment . . . de novo, viewing the facts in
the light most favorable to the non-moving party.”
Schaefer, 760 F.3d 352, 370 (4th Cir. 2014).
requires the moving party to show that no genuine dispute of
material fact remains and that the moving party “is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).
should grant summary judgment unless a reasonable jury could
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249
Unum’s use of a suicide exclusion.
Plan administrators bear the
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burden of proving an exclusion applies.
Jenkins v. Montgomery
Indus., 77 F.3d 740, 743 (4th Cir. 1996).
Where, as here, the plan grants an administrator discretion
to award a benefit, we “must review only for abuse of discretion
Fortier v. Principal Life Ins. Co., 666
An “administrator’s decision is reasonable if it is
the result of a deliberate, principled reasoning process and if
it is supported by substantial evidence.”
Evans v. Eaton Corp.
Long Term Disability Plan, 514 F.3d 315, 322 (4th Cir. 2008)
(internal quotation marks omitted).
administrator’s factual findings and plan interpretations.
administrator’s factual findings require substantial evidence,
meaning “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.”
Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. v. Cherry, 326 F.3d
449, 452 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted).
evidence, a court must confine its review to the administrative
record, limiting itself “to the evidence that was before the
plan administrator at the time of the decision.”
CapitalCare, Inc., 70 F.3d 783, 788 (4th Cir. 1995).
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construe ambiguities against the insurer who drafted the terms.
See Carden v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 559 F.3d 256, 261 (4th Cir.
nonexhaustive list of factors this court set forth in Booth v.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Assocs. Health & Welfare Plan, 201 F.3d
335, 342-43 (4th Cir. 2000).
The Booth factors include:
(1) the language of the plan; (2) the purposes and
goals of the plan; (3) the adequacy of the materials
considered to make the decision and the degree to
which they support it; (4) whether the fiduciary’s
interpretation was consistent with other provisions in
the plan and with earlier interpretations of the plan;
(5) whether the decision making process was reasoned
consistent with the procedural
requirements of ERISA; (7) any external standard
relevant to the exercise of discretion; and (8) the
fiduciary’s motives and any conflict of interest it
On appeal, Ms. Collins argues that the district court erred
First, Ms. Collins argues that the exclusion
violates Va. Code § 38.2-3106 (2014), which prohibits insurers
from using suicide as a defense to the payment of life insurance
. . . limiting the liability of the insurer to an insured who,
whether sane or insane, dies by his own act within two years
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from the date of the policy.”
Ms. Collins argues that the
absence of the phrase “whether sane or insane” in Unum’s suicide
exclusion nullifies the exclusion.
provide sufficient notice of an exclusion and its limit of two
years to comply with the statute.
See New England Mut. Life
Ins. Co. v. Mitchell, 118 F.2d 414, 417 (4th Cir. 1941) (ruling
that a valid suicide exclusion does not need to use any “magic”
words to comply with statute that governs such exclusions).
interpreted “suicide” to mean any non-accidental, self-inflicted
She contends that, because the suicide exclusion did not
insane,” the exclusion does not apply to suicides committed by
however, Unum only has to offer a reasonable, and not the most
(explaining that abuse-of-discretion standard prohibits a court
* Because we conclude that the suicide exclusion complies
with Virginia law we need not resolve the parties’ dispute
regarding whether Unum should be allowed to alternatively
assert, for the first time on appeal, that the exclusion should
be found valid under Maine law.
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term [“suicide”] in place of [the administrator’s] reasonable,
Because people could reasonably understand the term
regardless of mental state, we defer to Unum’s interpretation.
interpretations of “suicide” to include sane and insane suicide
even though the phrase “sane and insane” did not appear in the
McCorkle, 757 F.3d at 459; Riggs v. Metro. Life
Ins. Co., 940 F. Supp. 2d 172, 184–85 (D.N.J. 2013).
Third, under Ms. Collins’ interpretation of “suicide,” she
argues the administrative record lacks substantial evidence to
show that Mr. Collins was sane when he died.
She contends that,
contends that Mr. Collins was not sane under Fourth Circuit law.
See Reinking v. Philadelphia Am. Life Ins. Co., 910 F.2d 1210,
1215 (4th Cir. 1990) (defining insanity to include someone who
suffers from “an ‘insane’ impulse that so overwhelms the will or
rational thought that the individual is unable to resist”).
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sanity at death has no bearing on the outcome.
support Unum’s conclusion that the suicide exclusion applied.
Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s order granting
summary judgment to Unum and denying summary judgment to Ms.
We dispense with oral argument because the facts and
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