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Estate of Criswell v. Aetna Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

July 19, 2017

Estate of Amanda G. Criswell, by her Personal Representative, Judy Criswell, Plaintiff,
Aetna Life Insurance Company, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Aetna Life Insurance Company's (“Aetna”) [ECF No. 17] motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and to strike certain damages and Plaintiff's jury demand.


         On October 23, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Horry County Court of Common Pleas in Horry County, South Carolina against Aetna alleging breach of contract, bad faith, and negligence over Aetna's refusal to pay on a $100, 000.00 Supplemental Life Insurance Policy that insured the life of Amanda Criswell. According to the complaint, Amanda Criswell was employed by The Myrtle Beach Sun News, which is owned by The McClatchy Company. In December 2013, Ms. Criswell purchased a Supplemental Life Insurance Policy in the amount of $100, 000.00 through her employer. The Supplemental Life Insurance Policy at issue in this case was optional life insurance that was offered as part of The McClatchy Company Comprehensive Welfare Benefit and Cafeteria Plan. Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Criswell passed away on January 21, 2015, and that Aetna has wrongfully and in bad faith refused to pay benefits under the $100, 000.00 Supplemental Life Insurance Policy.

         Aetna removed this case to this Court on December 4, 2015, pursuant 28 U.S.C. § 1331, contending that Plaintiff's claims involved an employer sponsored benefit plan and are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et. seq. (ERISA). Aetna then filed the current motion to dismiss and motion to strike Plaintiff's jury request arguing that Plaintiff's state law claims of breach of contract, bad faith, and negligence were preempted by ERISA. On September 6, 2016, the Court denied Aetna's motion without prejudice and allowed the parties 60 days within which to conduct discovery on the issue of whether the safe harbor provision set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 2510.3-l(j) applies to this case, i.e. whether or not this case is governed by ERISA.

         On November 7, 2016, Aetna refiled its motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) arguing that Plaintiff's state law claims are preempted by ERISA. Aetna attached a copy of the summary plan description and employee welfare benefit plan as Exhibits A and B to its motion to dismiss. Aetna also filed a declaration of Gail Drake, a consultant with Aetna, and a declaration of Chris Klyse, Director of Compensation and Benefits with the McClatchy Company, in support of its motion to dismiss. In response to the motion to dismiss, Plaintiff filed an affidavit of Chris Klyse and attached a payroll record showing that the employer did not contribute to the premiums for Criswell's supplemental life insurance policy.

         After reviewing the parties' submissions, the Court, pursuant to Rule 12(d), issued a Text Order notifying the parties of the Court's intention to convert Aetna's motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56. The Court allowed the parties the opportunity to supplement the record with any appropriate materials outside the pleadings which either party believed should be considered in determining whether the supplemental life insurance policy at issue is governed by ERISA.

         On May 12, Aetna filed a supplemental brief and an additional affidavit from Gail Drake. Plaintiff filed a supplemental brief, affidavit from Plaintiff Judy Criswell, Aetna's denial letter, and the autopsy results of Amanda Criswell.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         “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) (2010). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . .; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         When no genuine issue of any material fact exists, summary judgment is appropriate. See Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1011 (4th Cir. 1991). The facts and inferences to be drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. However, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         "Once the moving party has met [its] burden, the nonmoving party must come forward with some evidence beyond the mere allegations contained in the pleadings to show that there is a genuine issue for trial." Baber v. Hospital Corp. of Am., 977 F.2d 872, 874-75 (4th Cir. 1992). The nonmoving party may not rely on beliefs, conjecture, unsupported speculation, or conclusory allegations to defeat a motion for summary judgment. See Baber, 977 F.2d at 875. Rather, the nonmoving party is required to submit evidence of specific facts by way of affidavits, depositions, interrogatories, or admissions to demonstrate the existence of a genuine and material factual issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).


         Aetna argues that Plaintiff's state law claims for breach of contract, bad faith, and negligence are due to be dismissed because the Supplemental Life Insurance Policy at issue is part of an employee welfare benefit plan and is governed by ERISA. Therefore, Aetna argues, Plaintiff's state law claims are completely preempted by ERISA. Aetna further argues that Plaintiff is ...

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