Snow v. Boston Mutual Life Insurance Company
OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Mark E. Fuller on 8/9/2013. (Attachments: # 1 Civil Appeals Checklist)(jg, )
Snow v. Boston Mutual Life Insurance Company
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BOSTON MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE
CASE NO. 3:11-cv-813-MEF
(WO—Do Not Publish)
This is an ERISA1 case involving two claims for relief brought by Plaintiff Dorothy
Snow (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Snow”), the widow and designated beneficiary of James Francis
Snow (“Mr. Snow”) under a life insurance policy issued to Mr. Snow’s former employer,
Meadowcraft, Inc. (“Meadowcraft”), against Boston Mutual Insurance Company (“Boston
Mutual” or “Defendant”), the underwriter of the policy, for the payment of certain life
insurance benefits. In its Memorandum Opinion and Order dated January 15, 2013, this
Court granted summary judgment in favor of Boston Mutual as to Plaintiff’s claim for
equitable relief under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), and it denied the parties’ cross-motions for
summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff’s claim for life insurance benefits under 29
U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). (Doc. #62.) Specifically, the Court determined that an issue of fact
existed as to the proper construction of the term “Normal Retirement date” in Group Life
ERISA refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001
Insurance Policy No. G-24661 (the “Plan”). (Doc. #62, at 17.) Furthermore, the Court
determined that a claim for life insurance benefits pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B)
must be premised on construing the Plan itself, and not summary documents like the
Certificate in this case. (Doc. #62, at 14) (citing CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 131 S. Ct. 1866,
1878 (2011)). Accordingly, the sole question to be decided is the proper construction of the
term “Normal Retirement date” in the Plan, which controls whether life insurance benefits
are due to Ms. Snow.
At the time the Court entered its summary judgment opinion, it found that a disputed
issue of material fact existed with respect to Meadowcraft’s “Normal Retirement Date” based
on its “published or accepted personnel practices.” (Doc. #62, at 16.) At that time, Boston
Mutual’s strongest evidence was an Employer’s Statement Form filled out by Mary Beth
Wilbanks (“Ms. Wilbanks”), Human Resources Coordinator, who certified on October 2,
2002, that Meadowcraft’s “Normal Retirement Age in Company” was 65 years old. (Doc.
#33-12, at 3.) However, Ms. Wilbanks testified that she could not recall where she located
the normal retirement age, (Doc. #35-6, 33:12–22), and she also testified that there were
Meadowcraft employees who worked past 65 and that, ordinarily, it was the individual
employee who decided when to retire (Doc. #35-6, 23:5–10, 35:15–17). Taken together,
there was a dispute of material fact as to what was the normal retirement date under
Meadowcraft’s “accepted personnel practices.” Notably, the Court did not yet have any
evidence of “published . . . personnel practices” at this time. (See Doc. #33-1, at 3.)
After weighing the evidence and testimony offered by the parties during the bench
trial conducted on June 18–19, 2013, the Court now finds that judgment is due to be entered
in favor of Defendant Boston Mutual Insurance Company and against Plaintiff Dorothy
Snow. In support of this judgment, the Court makes the following findings of fact and
conclusions of law:
I. FINDINGS OF FACT
Plaintiff’s deceased husband, James Snow (“Mr. Snow”), worked as a salaried
employee (warehouse supervisor) for Meadowcraft, a defunct outdoor furniture manufacturer
that is not actively involved in the case.
Mr. Snow became debilitated with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
(“COPD”) at the age of 59, leaving him fully disabled from May 17, 2002, until the time of
his death on August 27, 2009, at age 67.
When Mr. Snow became disabled, he made a Waiver of Premium claim under
the terms of the Plan, which Boston Mutual approved.
Under the terms of the Waiver of Premium provision of the Plan, his life
insurance would be kept in force as if he were still an employee, “but in no event beyond the
Normal Retirement date in effect as of the date of . . . disability.” (Doc. #33-1, at 7)
The Plan defines “Normal Retirement Date” as the “normal retirement date
provided for by the Policyholder’s published or accepted personnel practices.” (Doc. #33-1,
at 3) (emphasis added).
Meadowcraft provided the Plan to its employees and paid all premiums due
under the Plan.
On May 17, 2002, the 401(k) plan in effect for salaried employees defined the
“Normal Retirement Date” as “the date [an employee] reach[es] 65.”
II. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
Subject-matter jurisdiction is exercised pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal
question) and 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1) (ERISA).
Venue is appropriate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391.
The Plan is not ambiguous with respect to the term “Normal Retirement Date.”
Following the evidence presented at trial, the Court finds that “Normal Retirement Date”
makes reference to a consistent, determinate normal retirement date “in effect as of the date
of . . . disability.” (See Doc. #33-1, at 7.)
On May 17, 2002, the date of Mr. Snow’s disability, the Court finds that the
“Normal Retirement Date” at Meadowcraft was an employee’s sixty-fifth birthday. The
Court’s finding is based upon the published personnel practice embodied in the 401(k) plan
in effect for salaried employees and by the accepted personnel practices established by
testimony, particularly that of Larry York and Ms. Wilbanks.
Terms defining retirement age in voluntary life insurance benefit plans made
available by Meadowcraft’s Human Resources Department—plans whose premiums are paid
by the employee who elects to purchase the coverage—are not evidence of Meadowcraft’s
“published or accepted personnel practices” for determining Meadowcraft’s “Normal
Retirement Date.” In light of Meadowcraft’s provision of basic life insurance coverage to
its employees, the purpose of such plans was clearly to supplement employer-provided basic
Because the Court has found that the Plan term “Normal Retirement Date”
means an employee’s sixty-fifth birthday, Ms. Snow is not entitled to any benefits under the
Plan, as Mr. Snow’s life insurance coverage lapsed prior to his death at age 67.
Consistent with this ruling, the Court will enter a written final judgment in favor of
Defendant Boston Mutual Insurance Company and against Plaintiff Dorothy Snow.
DONE this the 9th day of August, 2013.
/s/ Mark E. Fuller
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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