Nicholls v. Aetna Life Insurance Company et al
ORDER denying 14 MOTION to Remand to State Court by Ryan Nicholls. Signed by Judge Warren W. Eginton on 10/30/13. (Ladd-Smith, I.)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
AETNA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY
and BARBARA NICHOLLS,
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO REMAND
Plaintiff Ryan Nicholls commenced this single-action complaint against defendants Aetna
Life Insurance Company (“Aetna”) and Barbara Nicholls in Connecticut Superior Court. After
removal by Aetna, plaintiff has moved to remand to state court based on lack of federal question
For the following reasons, plaintiff’s motion to remand will be denied.
Plaintiff’s complaint alleges that Aetna improperly delivered life insurance benefits from
the policy of Harry Nicholls, plaintiff’s father, to Barbara Nicholls, Harry Nicholls’ second wife.
The complaint alleges that Barbara Nicholls agreed, through contract with Harry Nicholls, to
forgo insurance proceeds to which she was previously entitled. Barbara Nicholls allegedly failed
to notify Aetna that, pursuant to the contract, she was not entitled to any life insurance proceeds
of Harry Nicholls.
Plaintiff alleges that as an heir at law of Harry Nicholls, he has suffered losses and
damage as a consequence of defendants’ conduct. He seeks damages and a declaration that
Aetna is obligated to provide the insurance proceeds and benefits under the life insurance policy
of Harry Nicholls to plaintiff.
Aetna argues that removal of this action to federal court was proper because plaintiff’s
action is completely preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).
The presence or absence of federal-question jurisdiction is governed by the
‘well-pleaded complaint rule,’ which provides that federal jurisdiction exists
only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's
properly pleaded complaint. The rule makes the plaintiff the master of the
claim; he or she may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state
law. . . . Thus, it is now settled law that a case may not be removed to federal
court on the basis of a federal defense, including the defense of pre-emption,
even if the defense is anticipated in the plaintiff's complaint, and even if both
parties concede that the federal defense is the only question truly at issue.
Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392-93 (1987)
Nevertheless, an exception to the above rule lies where the preemptive force of a statute
is so strong as to convert an ordinary state common-law complaint into a federal claim. Id. at
393. Moreover, the Supreme Court has held that ERISA preempts state common law tort and
contract actions asserting improper processing of a claim for benefits under an insured employee
benefit plan. Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeaux, 481 U.S. 41, 56 (1987). Indeed, “Congress' specific
reference to § 301 of the [Labor Management Relations Act] to describe the civil enforcement
scheme of ERISA makes clear its intention that all suits brought by beneficiaries or participants
asserting improper processing of claims under ERISA-regulated plans be treated as federal
questions governed by § 502(a).” Id. at 52.
Plaintiff contends that (1) Aetna has failed to demonstrate that the life insurance policy in
question is covered by ERISA; (2) plaintiff is not a participant, beneficiary, fiduciary, or other
qualified person pursuant to 29 U.S.C. §1132(e)(1), so ERISA preemption does not apply; (3)
plaintiff is a participant or beneficiary seeking to recover benefits due him under the terms of the
plan, so 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1) authorizes concurrent state court jurisdiction; (4) Aetna’s notice
of removal failed to notify necessary parties and, therefore, removal was invalid.
First, ERISA covers employee benefit plans if they are established by an employer
engaged in commerce. 29 U.S.C. § 1003(a). Section 1002(1) defines benefit plans as “any plan,
fund, or program . . . established or maintained by an employer . . . to the extent that such plan,
fund, or program was established or is maintained for the purpose of providing for its participants
or their beneficiaries, through the purchase of insurance or otherwise . . .” 29 U.S.C. §1002(1).
Accordingly, Harry Nicholls’ life insurance plan is covered by ERISA.
Second, on the face of the complaint, plaintiff implicitly argues that he is a beneficiary
seeking to recover benefits due him under the terms of the plan based on his status as heir at law
of Harry Nicholls. Moreover, the insurance plan provides that:
If no named beneficiary survives you or if no beneficiary has been named,
payment will be made as follows to those who survive you:
Your spouse, if any.
If there is no spouse, in equal share to your children.
Plaintiff’s complaint alleges that since Barbara Nicholls relinquished her rights as
beneficiary via contract with Harry Nicholls, plaintiff is entitled to life insurance payments. As
plaintiff’s action seeks a court order that he is the lawful beneficiary of the plan, his argument
that he is not a beneficiary cannot stand.
Third, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1) does authorize concurrent state court jurisdiction. It
Except for actions under subsection (a)(1)(B) of this section, the district
courts of the United States shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions
under this subchapter brought by the Secretary or by a participant,
beneficiary, fiduciary, or any person referred to in section 1021(f)(1) of this
title. State courts of competent jurisdiction and district courts of the United
States shall have concurrent jurisdiction of actions under paragraphs (1)(B)
and (7) of subsection (a) of this section
In turn, subsection (a)(1)(B) provides:
A civic action may be brought by a participant or beneficiary to recover
benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the
terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of
Accordingly, state courts have concurrent jurisdiction. Nevertheless, this argument is irrelevant
as federal removal statutes expressly contemplate concurrent jurisdiction in all cases eligible for
removal. 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Indeed, “[t]he general rule is that absent an express provision to the
contrary, the removal right should be respected when there is concurrent jurisdiction.” Yurcik v.
Sheet Metal Workers’ Intern. Ass’n 889 F. Supp. 706 (S.D.N.Y. 1995); See also Breuer v. Jim’s
Concrete of Brevard, Inc., 538 U.S. 691, 693 (1882) (holding that statutory authority to file in
any federal or state court does not bar removal).
Finally, plaintiff argues that remand is necessary because Aetna failed to provide notice to
all other parties that may have an interest in this action pursuant to Connecticut declaratory
judgment law. Plaintiff provides no authority for this proposition, and the Court will not remand
based on this argument. The Court will order such notice if appropriate.
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff’s motion to remand is DENIED.
Dated this 30th day of October, 2013, at Bridgeport, Connecticut.
WARREN W. EGINTON
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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