Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan v. Laenen et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER. (See Full Order.) IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Jennifer R. Laenen's Motion to Limit Discovery 32 is granted, but without prejudice to defendant Beth A. Laenen seeking such discovery if the parties' intent becomes rele vant in further proceedings. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Jennifer R. Laenen's Motion to Dismiss Defendant Beth Laenen's Counterclaim and Crossclaim for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction 37 is denied without prejudice. An Interim Scheduling Order governing the next phase of this case will be entered separately. Signed by District Judge Catherine D. Perry on 7/14/2016. (CBL)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
BETH A. LAENEN, et al.,
Case No. 4:15 CV 1005 CDP
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Beth A. Laenen and her husband, Frank Laenen, divorced in November
2010. Frank1 remarried in August 2011. He died in February 2012. At the time of
his death, Frank was a participant in the Anheuser-Busch Companies Pension Plan.
In this ERISA interpleader action, Beth claims that she is entitled to one-half of
Frank’s Plan benefits under the terms of a qualified domestic relations order
(QDRO) entered March 16, 2015. Frank’s surviving spouse, Jennifer R. Laenen,
disagrees and contends that Beth is entitled to no Plan benefits given the plan
administrator’s determination that the domestic relations order is not qualified
under ERISA. Jennifer now seeks to limit discovery in this action, arguing that
Beth’s discovery requests relating to Frank and Beth’s November 2010 Separation
Agreement are irrelevant to the disposition of this case. At this stage of the
Because the individuals in this case all share the surname “Laenen,” I will refer to them by their
first names in this memorandum. No disrespect is intended.
proceedings, I will grant Jennifer’s motion to limit discovery, but without prejudice
to Beth’s seeking such discovery if and when it becomes relevant to the action.
Jennifer’s separate motion to dismiss Beth’s claims for lack of jurisdiction will be
On November 12, 2010, the Circuit Court of Franklin County, Missouri,
entered a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, dissolving the 30-year marriage of
Frank and Beth Laenen. The Judgment incorporated the terms of Frank and Beth’s
Separation Agreement, which included a provision that Beth receive one-half of
Frank’s pension upon his retirement, “unless [Beth] remarries.”2
In March 2015, after extensive State court litigation, the Franklin County
Circuit Court entered an order “intended to constitute a Qualified Domestic
Relations Order” relating to “the provision of marital property rights to [Beth] as a
result” of the November 2010 Judgment.3 As is relevant to this action, the order
assigned to Beth “an amount equal to 50% of [Frank’s] Accrued Benefit under the
Plan as of November 12, 2010, so long as [Beth] remains unmarried.”4 This order
was submitted to the plan administrator for approval, but the administrator
determined it not to be “qualified” under ERISA given that 1) Beth’s status under
the order was as a “conditional” alternate payee, dependent on future marital
J. Laenen Countercl./Cross-cl. - Exh. B, ECF #9-3 at p. 12 (Sep. Agrmt., Exh. A).
Id., Exh. G, ECF #9-8 at pp. 1, 2.
Id. at p. 2.
status; 2) the order required the plan administrator to continually monitor Beth’s
marital status and make ongoing determinations as to benefit entitlement; and 3)
the order did not specify the number of payments or the time period to which the
order applied, given the open-ended condition and need for ongoing monitoring of
Beth’s marital status.
Both Beth and Jennifer made claims to the Plan for payment of Frank’s Plan
benefits – with Beth seeking half of the Plan benefits accrued as of November 12,
2010, and Jennifer seeking all of the benefits. Given these conflicting claims, the
Plan brought this action in interpleader requesting the Court to determine who is
entitled to the benefits and to “enter an order that is qualified under ERISA.”5 Beth
and Jennifer have each filed counterclaims against the Plan and crossclaims against
each other, each asserting that she is entitled to her respective portion of the Plan
benefits and requesting that I award the benefits accordingly. In addition, Beth
also requests that I enter a QDRO enforcing the Plan’s payment to her of benefits
equal to fifty-percent of Frank’s benefits accrued under the Plan as of November
My initial role here is limited to determining whether the plan administrator
properly decided that the March 2015 order was not “qualified” and thus not a
QDRO enforceable under ERISA. Because the administrator’s decision involved
Compl., ECF #1 at para. 28.
interpretation of the circuit court’s order and did not require an interpretation of the
Plan’s terms, my review of the administrator’s decision is de novo. Hogan v.
Raytheon, Co., 302 F.3d 854, 856 (8th Cir. 2002). Therefore, I must determine
whether, in fact, the March 2015 order is a QDRO under ERISA.
For a former spouse to have an enforceable interest in a participant’s
ERISA-qualified plan, there must be a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO)
in place. A QDRO is an express statutory exception to the anti-alienation
provisions required for pensions governed by ERISA. 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(1).
A QDRO is a type of domestic relations order that creates or
recognizes an alternate payee's right to, or assigns to an alternate
payee the right to, a portion of the benefits payable with respect to a
participant under a plan. A domestic relations order, in turn, is any
judgment, decree, or order that concerns the provision of child
support, alimony payments, or marital property rights to a spouse,
former spouse, child, or other dependent of a participant and is made
pursuant to a State domestic relations law (including a community
property law). A domestic relations order must meet certain
requirements to qualify as a QDRO.
Boggs v. Boggs, 520 U.S. 833, 846 (1997) (internal quotation marks and citations
omitted). If a domestic relations order is determined to be qualified as a QDRO
under ERISA, the affected plan is obligated to comply with its terms. 29 U.S.C. §
1056(d)(3)(A) (“Each pension plan shall provide for the payment of benefits in
accordance with the applicable requirements of any qualified domestic relations
“The primary responsibility for determining whether a [domestic relations
order] is a QDRO rests with the plan itself.” Green v. AT & T, Inc., No. 4:07 CV
1537 DDN, 2009 WL 1161576, at *11 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 29, 2009) (citing 29 U.S.C.
§ 1056(d)(3)(G); Trustees of the Dir.’s Guild of Am.-Producer Pension Benefits
Plans, 234 F.3d 415, 420 (9th Cir. 2000)). In making this determination, a plan is
not permitted “to look beneath the surface of the order.” Blue v. UAL Corp., 160
F.3d 383, 385 (7th Cir. 1998). “Whether a domestic relations order qualifies as a
QDRO depends on the language of the order itself; the subjective intentions of the
parties are not controlling.” Hawkins v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 86 F.3d 982,
989-90 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Comm’r of Internal Revenue v. Lester, 366 U.S.
299, 304-05 (1961)).6 See also Smith v. Estate of Smith, 248 F. Supp. 2d 348, 355
With de novo review of the plan administrator’s decision here, I am likewise
in the position of determining whether this domestic relations order is a QDRO.
Indeed, ERISA itself contemplates this circumstance. 29 U.S.C. §
1056(d)(3)(H)(i) (addressing action to be taken by plan administrator during period
in which issue of whether domestic relations order is a QDRO is being determined
“by the plan administrator, by a court of competent jurisdiction, or otherwise”)
In Hawkins, the court reviewed a lower court’s determination of whether a domestic relations
order qualified as a QDRO under 26 U.S.C. § 414(p) – the federal tax code – which recognizes
that distributions of pension funds following divorce to an alternate payee under a valid QDRO
constitutes an exception to the general rule that the “distributee” for tax purposes is the plan
participant. Because a valid QDRO under the tax code is defined in identical terms as that under
ERISA, compare 26 U.S.C. § 414(p)(1)-(3) with 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(B)-(D), I find the
Hawkins court’s discussion applicable to the issue here. See also Stewart v. Thorpe Holding Co.
Profit Sharing Plan, 207 F.3d 1143, 1155 n.10 (9th Cir. 2000).
(emphasis added); see also Green, 2009 WL 1161576, at *11. Given that my
review is de novo, Beth argues that resolution of this question will involve my
consideration of the parties’ intent underlying the November 2010 Separation
Agreement, thereby making discovery relating to this intent relevant to this action.
As with plan administrators, however, I am not permitted to look beyond the terms
of the domestic relations order when determining whether it is a QDRO.
To be considered a “qualified” domestic relations order under ERISA, the
order must “clearly” specify:
(i) the name and the last known mailing address (if any) of the
participant and the name and mailing address of each alternate payee
covered by the order,
(ii) the amount or percentage of the participant's benefits to be paid
by the plan to each such alternate payee, or the manner in which such
amount or percentage is to be determined,
(iii) the number of payments or period to which such order applies,
(iv) each plan to which such order applies.
29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(C). In addition, the order can be considered a QDRO
“only if” it:
(i) does not require a plan to provide any type or form of benefit, or
any option, not otherwise provided under the plan,
(ii) does not require the plan to provide increased benefits
(determined on the basis of actuarial value), and
(iii) does not require the payment of benefits to an alternate payee
which are required to be paid to another alternate payee under another
order previously determined to be a qualified domestic relations order.
29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(D). To be an enforceable QDRO, all of these specific
criteria must be met.
Inquiring into the intent of the parties to determine whether an order meets
the specificity requirements of § 1056(d)(3)(C) and (D) would defeat ERISA’s
purpose of establishing these requirements in the first place.7 Relaxing these
specificity requirements to permit inquiry into and correspondingly weigh the
parties’ underlying intentions could result in “even the most facially inadequate
order . . . theoretically qualify[ing] as a QDRO[.]” Hawkins, 86 F.3d at 992. In
such a situation, a domestic relations order that makes no mention of the facts
required to be specified “clearly” under § 1056(d)(3)(C) could nonetheless
constitute a QDRO because either a plan administrator or a court independently
obtained such facts. I am aware of no authority demonstrating that Congress
intended that the precise requirements of § 1056(d)(3)(C) and (D) could be
disregarded in favor of conducting ad hoc subjective inquiries into what parties
intended when drafting divorce agreements. Cf. Hawkins, 86 F.3d at 992.
Therefore, in determining whether the Franklin County Circuit Court’s
“The statutory language is explicit and emphatic. The purpose is to reduce the expense of
ERISA plans by sparing plan administrators the grief they experience when because of
uncertainty concerning the identity of the beneficiary they pay the wrong person, or arguably the
wrong person, and are sued by a rival claimant.” Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Wheaton, 42 F.3d 1080,
1084 (7th Cir. 1994). See also Day v. Wall, 112 F. Supp. 2d 833, 839 (E.D. Wis. 2000)
(“Congress's intent was to establish clear rules governing the duties of pension plans and prevent
plans from making discretionary decisions in this area or looking beneath the surface of
QDROs.”) (citing Blue, 160 F.3d at 385).
March 2015 order is a QDRO under ERISA, I will not look beyond the order to
Frank and Beth’s intentions when they drafted their Separation Agreement in
November 2010. Jennifer’s motion to limit discovery in this regard will therefore
be granted. I am aware that there may be circumstances where a court must
interpret the terms of a QDRO, at which time the intent of the parties may become
relevant. See Green, 2009 WL 1161576, at *11. But that would only happen after
and if the court determines that the order is, in fact, a QDRO. At the present stage
of this litigation, I do not have before me an order that has been determined to be
an enforceable QDRO or a plan administrator’s action thereon. Therefore, while I
will grant Jennifer’s motion to limit discovery at this time, it is without prejudice to
Beth’s seeking such discovery if further proceedings demonstrate its relevance.
Finally, the parties do not dispute that I have federal subject-matter
jurisdiction to determine the question of whether the March 2015 order is a QDRO
under ERISA. Resolution of this question will determine the course of further
proceedings in this case, including whether and to what extent Beth may pursue
her counterclaim against the Plan and her crossclaim against Jennifer. Given the
present status of this case, I am not convinced that I lack subject-matter jurisdiction
over Beth’s separate claims, as urged by Jennifer. Accordingly, I will deny
Jennifer’s motion to dismiss Beth’s counterclaim and crossclaim.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Jennifer R. Laenen’s Motion to Limit
Discovery  is granted, but without prejudice to defendant Beth A. Laenen
seeking such discovery if the parties’ intent becomes relevant in further
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Jennifer R. Laenen’s Motion to Dismiss
Defendant Beth Laenen’s Counterclaim and Crossclaim for Lack of Subject Matter
Jurisdiction  is denied without prejudice.
An Interim Scheduling Order governing the next phase of this case will be
CATHERINE D. PERRY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated this 14th day of July, 2016.
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