Murray v. AETNA Life Insurance Company
ORDERED: Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 55) is GRANTED as to breach of contract claim (Count II). The declaratory judgment claim (Count I) is DISMISSED without prejudice for lack of jurisdiction. The Clerk is DIRECTED to enter judgment, deny any pending motions as moot, terminate any deadlines, and close the case. Signed by Judge Sheri Polster Chappell on 10/7/2021. (AEH)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
FORT MYERS DIVISION
Case No: 2:20-cv-209-SPC-MRM
AETNA LIFE INSURANCE
OPINION AND ORDER1
Before the Court is Aetna Life Insurance Company’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. 55), along with Odette Murray’s response (Doc. 58),2
and Aetna’s reply (Doc. 60). After considering these papers against the record
and applicable law, the Court grants the Motion for Summary Judgment as to
breach of contract claim and dismisses the declaratory judgment claim for lack
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Plaintiff’s response does not follow Local Rule 1.08’s typography requirements. For
efficiency reasons, the Court will not strike the paper. But Plaintiff should not expect future
leniency from the Court for this failure to follow the Local Rules.
This suit is about whether Aetna paid over $292,000 in life insurance
proceeds to the proper beneficiary after Courtney Murray passed away.
Because Courtney’s ex-wife, Cheryl Robinson Glover, was the beneficiary
Aetna had on file when he died, it paid her. Odette Murray, Courtney’s wife
when he died, says she is the beneficiary and Aetna should have paid her.
These disputes often come to the Court as interpleader actions. But here,
Odette sues for declaratory relief under Fla. Stat. § 86.011 (Count I), and for
breach of the life insurance policy (Count II). (Doc. 3). In Count I, Odette
requests two declarations: (1) that the life insurance policy “was in full force
and effect and provided life insurance benefits to Odette Murray,” and (2) that
she is the “sole and rightful beneficiary of benefits” under the life insurance
policy. (Doc. 3 at ¶ 33). In Count II, Odette alleges that because she is the
proper beneficiary, Aetna breached the life insurance policy by not paying her.
Aetna says because it had no notice that anyone other than Cheryl was the
beneficiary, it is entitled to summary judgment based on a statutory defense
under Florida law that discharges Aetna from all claims under the life
insurance policy. Fla. Stat. § 627.423.
Courtney Murray worked at Lee Memorial Health System (“Lee Health”)
for 37 years, until his death in 2018. Through his employment, he had two
group life insurance policies—one underwritten by Aetna, and one
underwritten by Minnesota Life Insurance Company. After Courtney died,
Odette was paid by just one policy (Minnesota Life). This suit is about the
Aetna policy and its beneficiary designation. (Doc. 55-1, “the Policy”).
Courtney married Cheryl, and, in 1992, named her as “spouse” and sole
beneficiary on the Policy. (Doc. 59-1 at 6). In 2005, Courtney and Cheryl
divorced and entered into a Marital Settlement Agreement (Doc. 26-3), in
which Cheryl agreed to disclaim her interest in Courtney’s life insurance
Courtney and Odette married in 2006. On November 9, 2016, Courtney
completed a Lee Health “Life Beneficiary Form,” that named Odette as
“spouse” and sole beneficiary on the Policy. (Doc. 59-2 at 16). Odette submits
a Declaration telling us that Courtney sent the 2016 Life Beneficiary Form to
Lee Health’s human resources department by interoffice mail and placed the
signed form in a floor safe at home where he placed all their important papers.
(Doc. 58-1). No one from Lee Health’s human resources department could say
they received the 2016 Life Beneficiary Form.
Courtney died on April 9, 2018. The next day, Lee Health submitted
Courtney’s claim for benefits to Aetna. The claim submission included the only
beneficiary form that Lee Health had on file at the time of Courtney’s death—
the 1992 beneficiary form naming Cheryl as the sole beneficiary. (Doc. 59-2).
After Courtney died, Aetna spoke with Odette and requested the death
certificate from her. Odette called Aetna on April 23, 2018, identified herself
as Courtney’s spouse, and asked the Aetna representative about the status of
the death benefit. (Doc. 58-1 at ¶ 17). On May 3, 2018, Aetna paid Cheryl as
the beneficiary on the Policy. Odette called Aetna multiple times and contested
the payment to no avail. After Cheryl was paid, Odette got the 2016 Life
Beneficiary Form out of the floor safe and took it to Lee Health HR. Lee Health
provided the 2016 form to Aetna, but it was too late. Aetna had paid Cheryl
and nothing Odette told them or that they received changed their mind. On
June 5, 2019, Aetna denied Odette’s claim for the benefits.
“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled
to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it
“might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a material fact is in genuine
dispute “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict
for the nonmoving party.” Id. At this stage, courts must view all facts and
draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party. Rojas v. Florida, 285 F.3d 1339, 1341-42 (11th Cir. 2002).
Aetna moves for summary judgment based on a statutory defense, Fla.
Stat. § 627.423, known as Florida’s “facility of payment statute,” which
Whenever the proceeds of or payments under a life or health
insurance policy or annuity contract become payable in accordance
with the terms of such policy or contract, or the exercise of any
right or privilege thereunder, and the insurer makes payment
thereof in accordance with the terms of the policy or contract or in
accordance with any written assignment thereof, the person then
designated in the policy or contract or by such assignment as being
entitled thereto shall be entitled to receive such proceeds or
payments and to give full acquittance therefor; and such payments
shall fully discharge the insurer from all claims under the policy
or contract unless, before payment is made, the insurer has
received at its home office written notice by or on behalf of some
other person that such other person claims to be entitled to such
payment or some interest in the policy or contract.
Fla. Stat. § 627.423. Thus, the statute discharges an insured from any action
when it pays on a policy if two requirements are met: (1) payment made under
the policy terms; and (2) the insurer did not receive written notice before
payment is made that another person claims to be entitled to the payment.
Odette makes two arguments against summary judgment. First, she
argues that the statute protects only insurers that comply with the terms of an
insurance policy, which Aetna did not do here. She says that the Policy is
ambiguous as to when a beneficiary change is effective and therefore the Court
should construe the Policy in her favor for coverage and find a genuine issue of
material fact as to whether Courtney complied with the Policy terms to change
the beneficiary. The Policy provides:
Naming Your Beneficiary
A beneficiary is the person you designate to receive life benefits if
you should die while you are covered. You may name anyone you
wish as your beneficiary. You may name more than one
beneficiary. You will need to complete a beneficiary designation
form, which you can get from your employer.
You may change your beneficiary choice at any time by completing
a new beneficiary designation form. Send the completed form to
your employer or to Aetna. The beneficiary change will be effective
on the date you sign a new beneficiary designation form.
Aetna pays life insurance benefits in accordance with the
beneficiary designation it has on record. Any payment made
before Aetna receives your request for a beneficiary change will be
made to your previously designated beneficiary. Aetna will be fully
discharged of its duties as to any payment made, if the payment is
made before Aetna receives notification of the change in
(Doc. 55-1 at 8).
It is a cardinal principle of insurance law that where the provisions of
an insurance policy are clear and unambiguous, the terms of the policy will be
accorded their plain meaning and enforced as written. See Rigel v. National
Cas. Co., 76 So. 2d 285, 286 (Fla. 1954).
The Court finds that the Policy is not ambiguous and must be enforced
as written. Aetna pays benefits to the beneficiary it has on file and must
receive notification of a change in beneficiary before payment is made. True,
a beneficiary change may be effective when a signed beneficiary form is sent to
either Aetna or Lee Health, but payment is conditioned on Aetna receiving any
beneficiary change before payment is made. And there is no evidence that
Aetna received a beneficiary designation form to name Odette as the
beneficiary before it paid Cheryl. Even drawing all reasonable inferences in
Odette’s favor to find that Courtney did send the 2016 Life Beneficiary form to
Lee Health, the Court would reach the same conclusion. Unless Aetna receives
the request for beneficiary change, it is within the Policy terms to pay the
beneficiary designation it has on record. In sum, Aetna complied with the
Policy terms when paying Cheryl who was the only beneficiary designation
Aetna had on record when Courtney died. And because Aetna had no written
notice by or on behalf of Odette that she claimed to be entitled to the benefits
before paying Cheryl, Aetna was discharged of any further liability under Fla.
Stat. § 627.423.
Odette’s second argument doesn’t move the needle. Odette argues that
she is the sole and rightful beneficiary under Fla. Stat. § 732.703, which
automatically voided Cheryl’s 1992 beneficiary designation when Courtney
and Cheryl divorced.
And with no beneficiary designation on file when
Courtney died, the Policy benefits went to Odette as the surviving spouse.
(Doc. 55-2 at 6).
Section 732.703 provides:
(2) A designation made by or on behalf of the decedent providing
for the payment or transfer at death of an interest in an asset to
or for the benefit of the decedent’s former spouse is void as of the
time the decedent’s marriage was judicially dissolved or declared
invalid by court order prior to the decedent’s death, if the
designation was made prior to the dissolution or court order. The
decedent’s interest in the asset shall pass as if the decedent’s
former spouse predeceased the decedent.
Fla. Stat. § 732.703(2).
What Odette essentially asks for is the Court to find that the statute
overrides the facility of payment statute and enter judgment in her favor to
declare her the beneficiary and find Aetna in breach. But Odette did so only
in opposing Aetna’s motion, which is procedurally improper. She has not
moved for summary judgment and the time to do so has long passed. To be
sure, Odette did request summary judgment be entered in her favor based on
the same argument at the beginning of this case. (Doc. 26). But she has not
renewed that request here. Quite the contrary. She requests that the Court
“allow this case to be heard before a jury as a trier of fact.” (Doc. 58 at 18).
The Court has no obligation to convert Odette’s response into yet a third round
of summary judgment briefing. Procedural problems aside, Odette does not
explain why the Court should disregard a defense afforded to Aetna by §
627.423 after paying under the Policy terms and apply § 732.703 instead. And
the Court has no obligation to make such an argument on her behalf.
In conclusion, because Aetna had no written notice by or on behalf of
Odette that she claimed to be entitled to the benefits before paying Cheryl, the
Court finds Aetna is entitled to summary judgment on its statutory defense
under Fla. Stat. § 627.423.
With the breach of contract claim decided in Aetna’s favor, that leaves
only Odette’s request that the Court to declare her the sole and rightful
beneficiary under the Policy. The Court finds the declaratory judgment claim
is moot and therefore the Court lacks jurisdiction over the claim.
To start, Odette’s claim is under the Florida Declaratory Judgment Act.
A district court sitting in diversity must apply federal procedural law and state
substantive law. See Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 427
(1996). But “[n]umerous Florida district courts and, in an unpublished opinion,
the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals have held that Florida’s Declaratory
Judgment Act is procedural and does not confer any substantive rights.” CJS
Inv’rs, LLC v. Berke, No. 618CV374ORL31DCI, 2018 WL 6589713, at *3 (M.D.
Fla. Dec. 14, 2018) (citing Coccaro v. Geico Gen. Ins., 648 F. App’x 876, 880
(11th Cir. 2016)). Thus, the Court construes Count I to seek relief under the
federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201. See 500 La Peninsula
Condo. Ass’n v. Landmark Am. Ins., No. 2:20cv-767-FTM-38NPM, 2020 WL
6273699, at *1 n.3 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 26, 2020); Hanus v. AIG Prop. Cas., No. 2:20cv-814-FTM-38NPM, 2020 WL 6154813, at *1 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 20, 2020).
Under the Declaratory Judgment Act, in a “case of actual controversy
within its jurisdiction,” a court “may declare the rights and other legal
relations of any interested party seeking such declaration, whether or not
further relief is or could be sought.” 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). “The phrase ‘case of
actual controversy’ in the Act refers to the type of ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies’
that are justiciable under Article III.” MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549
U.S. 118, 126 (2007). See also Cambridge Christian Sch., Inc. v. Fla. High Sch.
Athletic Ass’n, 942 F.3d 1215, 1251 (11th Cir. 2019) (explaining that the
Declaratory Judgment Act doesn’t “enlarge the jurisdiction of the federal
courts” and that declaratory relief is subject to the “case or controversy”
requirement of Article III). “Before a federal court may issue relief under the
Act, there still must be a case or controversy that is live, is definite and
concrete, and is susceptible to specific relief through a decree of a conclusive
character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be
upon a hypothetical state of facts.” Gagliardi v. TJCV Land Trust, 889 F.3d
728, 734 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227,
240-41 (1937)). The Supreme Court has explained,
Basically, the question in each case is whether the facts alleged,
under all the circumstances, show that there is a substantial
controversy, between parties having adverse legal interests, of
sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant the issuance of a
Maryland Casualty Co. v. Pacific Oil Co., 312 U.S. 270, 273 (1941).
Even if there is a case of actual controversy when a case is filed, the
“mootness doctrine ensures that a justiciable case or controversy is present at
all stages of review.” Gagliardi, 889 F.3d at 733 (quoted authority omitted).
“Thus, a case becomes moot when the reviewing court can no longer offer any
effective relief to the claimant.” Id. “As with any federal suit, when a party
seeks declaratory relief, the courts are required to examine whether there is
an ‘actual controversy,’ without which a declaration may not issue.” Id. at 735.
Applying these principles, with no remaining dispute over Aetna’s
breach, any determination by the Court as to whether Odette is the sole and
rightful beneficiary under the Policy amounts to an advisory opinion and is not
justiciable. Even if the Court provides Odette with the declaration she wants,
that declaration would not provide Odette with the remedy she wants against
Aetna (the payment of insurance proceeds). “Instead, it would only resolve a
collateral issue; [s]he would still have to return to state court, where [s]he
might (or might not) be able to use the declaratory judgment in support of a
new suit seeking monetary damages.” Sundy Friendship Pavilion Acquisition
Co., 807 F. App’x 977, 982 (11th Cir. 2020).
In sum, no actual controversy remains between Odette and Aetna that
the declaratory judgment claim could resolve. Thus, the claim is moot. In such
circumstances, the district court must dismiss the claim for lack of Article III
jurisdiction. See Gagliardi, 889 F.3d at 735.
Accordingly, it is now
1. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 55) is GRANTED
as to breach of contract claim (Count II).
2. The declaratory judgment claim (Count I) is DISMISSED without
prejudice for lack of jurisdiction.
3. The Clerk is DIRECTED to enter judgment, deny any pending
motions as moot, terminate any deadlines, and close the case.
DONE and ORDERED in Fort Myers, Florida on October 7, 2021.
Copies: All Parties of Record
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