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Laird v. Aetna Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 19, 2017

RAMONA LAIRD, Plaintiff,
v.
AETNA LIFE INSURANCE CO., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the court is the Motion to Dismiss for Plaintiff's Failure to State a Claim (Doc. 34) jointly filed by Defendants AECOM Global II, LLC (“AECOM”) and Keith Sasser (“Sasser”), and the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by Defendant Aetna Life Insurance Company (“Aetna”) (Doc. 47). With the parties' briefing complete, the motions are now ripe for the court's review. After careful consideration of the parties' filings and the relevant law, the court concludes that the motion to dismiss (Doc. 34) and motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 47) are due to be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, as set forth below.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e). The defendants do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds allegations adequate to support both.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Ramona Laird (“Ms. Laird” or “Laird”) brought this action on July 5, 2016. Doc. 1. For the purposes of both a motion to dismiss and motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court must accept Laird's factual allegations as true and will recite the facts as alleged in her amended complaint (Doc. 32). AECOM employed Laird's husband, Robert Laird (“Mr. Laird”), as an Assistant Flight Commander stationed at the United States Army post at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Doc. 32 at 2. As of April 3, 2003, Mr. Laird was enrolled in the AECOM Global II Welfare Benefits Plan (the “plan”), which provided life insurance coverage. Doc. 32 at 2-3. On October 6, 2011, at the age of 69, Mr. Laird chose the “basic” coverage option under the plan, which provided a payout equivalent to his annual base salary, and elected to purchase additional coverage offering a payout equivalent to three times his base salary. Doc. 32 at 4. Mr. Laird designated Ms. Laird as the sole beneficiary. Doc. 32 at 4.

         Unbeknownst to the Lairds, any payout under the plan was set to reduce to 65% once Mr. Laird turned 70 years old. Doc. 32 at 4. In 2014, at the age of 72, Mr. Laird “confirmed that his benefit elections were still set at 1 x base salary and 3 x optional to be paid to Ms. Laird at 100%.” Doc. 32 at 5. The Lairds had determined that this amount of coverage would adequately provide for Ms. Laird's financial needs after her husband's death. Doc. 32 at 5. Ms. Laird alleges that a document mailed to the Lairds by AECOM in 2014, entitled “Current Benefits Summary for Robert Laird as of 01/01/2014, ” confirmed his coverage as well as the 100% payout, and did not indicate any reduction. Doc. 32 at 5. Though Mr. Laird had turned 70 in 2012, “the statement did not indicate that Mr. Laird's benefits had reduced to 65%, nor did it refer Mr. Laird to any Plan document that would inform him of the reduction.” Doc. 32 at 6.

         Defendant Keith Sasser was AECOM's human resources manager at Fort Rucker during the time period at issue. Doc. 32 at 4. Sasser conducted an Open Enrollment session each fall, during which AECOM employees would meet with him to make benefit selections for the upcoming year. Doc. 32 at 4. Sasser served in an advisory capacity, providing the employees with information regarding the plans and operating as the “primary point of contact” for AECOM employees at Fort Rucker between 2005 and 2014. Doc. 32 at 4. During Open Enrollment in October of 2011, Sasser allegedly failed to inform Mr. Laird that his benefits would reduce to 65% once he turned 70 despite the fact that Mr. Laird was 69 at the time. Doc. 32 at 4-5. Sasser also affirmatively represented that benefits would be paid at 100% even after Mr. Laird had turned 70. Doc. 32 at 14-15.

         On November 11, 2014, Mr. Laird passed away at the age of 72. Doc. 32 at 13. Two days later, Sasser and Bob Price, AECOM's director at Fort Rucker, traveled to Mr. Laird's funeral and informed Ms. Laird that “they had just realized that Mr. Laird's life insurance reduced at the age of 70.” Doc. 32 at 6. Sasser stated that he sent a memorandum that day informing the other employees of the reduction. Doc. 32 at 6. Sasser then submitted the claim to Aetna, which administered claims submitted under the plan.[1] Doc. 32 at 6. Aetna paid out 65% of the policy, or $266, 047.35, which was $141, 466.25 less than what Ms. Laird expected to receive. Doc. 32 at 6. Aetna processed the claim based on the terms of the plan and informed Ms. Laird that its decision was final. Doc. 32 at 7.

         The Lairds never received the alleged Summary Plan Description (“SPD”) that Aetna produced for AECOM employees. Doc. 32 at 7-8. Ms. Laird maintains that had the Lairds received the SPD indicating the reduction in benefits at age 70, they would have chosen additional coverage. Doc. 32 at 8. However, “Defendants failed to furnish Mr. Laird with a copy of the Summary Plan Description or any other Plan document that would have informed him of the benefit reduction.” Doc. 32 at 8.

         Laird asserts that all of the defendants--Aetna, AECOM, and Sasser--breached their fiduciary duties by “failing to furnish current, accurate, and complete Plan information that would have guided the Lairds' benefit elections.” Doc. 32 at 9. Sasser, who “assumed a plan administrator role, ” admitted to knowledge of the defendants' failure to furnish plan information that would have informed the Lairds of the reduction, but he submitted the claim to Aetna anyway. Doc. 32 at 9-10. Additionally, Laird contends that the defendants “unlawfully failed to correct each others' [sic] breaches of fiduciary duty with regard to Mr. Laird.” Doc. 32 at 10. As a result of the defendants' “misrepresentations, omissions, and breaches of fiduciary and co-fiduciary duties, ” Laird claims that she suffered damages in the amount of $141, 466.25. Doc. 32 at 18. Moreover, Laird requests equitable relief, “including, but not limited to, surcharge, restitution, constructive trust, reformation, disgorgement, estoppel, injunctive relief, costs, interest, and attorneys' fees pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g)(2).” Doc. 32 at 18.

         On November 17, 2016, Laird filed an amended complaint (Doc. 32) naming Aetna, AECOM and Sasser as defendants. Following the filing of the amended complaint, AECOM and Sasser filed the instant motion to dismiss, while Aetna filed an answer. Docs. 34 & 40. Aetna later filed the pending motion for judgment on the pleadings. Doc. 47.

         III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court must “take the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is “plausible on its face” if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Factual allegations need not be detailed, but “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” id., and “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation[s]” will not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         B. Judgment on the Pleadings

          “Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where there are no material facts in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Palmer & Cay, Inc. v. Marsh & McLennan Cos., Inc., 404 F.3d 1297, 1303 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The standard is functionally the same as that for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See United States v. Bahr, 275 F.R.D. 339, 340 (M.D. Ala. 2011). Thus, the court must accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Mergens v. Dreyfoos, 166 F.3d 1114, 1117 (11th Cir. 1999).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Laird asserts two claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1101, et seq. Count I is for breach of fiduciary duty pursuant to §§ 1132(a)(3) and 1135(a), while Count II is a claim for statutory penalties pursuant to § 1132(c)(1)(B) for an alleged breach of the disclosure obligations as set out in § 1024(b). See generally Doc. 32. The defendants have moved for dismissal or judgment on the pleadings as to both claims. See Docs. 34 & 47.

         A. Timeliness of the Motion to Dismiss

         As a threshold matter, Laird argues that AECOM's filing of an answer to her original complaint estops it from filing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss her amended complaint. Doc. 45 at 3-4. Indeed, under Rule 12, any motion to dismiss “must be made before pleading if a responsive pleading is allowed.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b). And “the filing of an amended complaint does not automatically revive all defenses or objections that the defendant may have waived in response to the initial complaint.” Krinsk v. SunTrust Banks, Inc., 654 F.3d 1194, 1202 (11th Cir. 2011). However, the defendant may “plead anew in response to an amended complaint, as if it were the initial complaint, when the amended complaint changes the theory or scope of the case.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Here, the amended complaint has materially changed both the theory and scope of the case. Laird's original complaint asserted just one count, styled as a claim for “ERISA -Recovery of Benefits Due and Breach of Fiduciary Duty.” Doc. 1 at 6. It did so with citation to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a), but no other ERISA statutory provisions. Doc. 1 at 8. As the title of the claim suggests, Laird's initial complaint expressly asserted a theory of lost benefits. Doc. 1 at 6 (“ERISA allows plan participants to bring civil actions to recover benefits due under the terms of the plan and benefits promised by the plan administrators.”). She requested monetary damages in the amount of $141, 466.25 in addition to “all other damages available at law, including, but not limited to, compensatory damages, punitive damages, equitable relief, costs, interest, and attorney fees.” Doc. 1 at 8. The amended complaint, on the other hand, asserts two causes of action and cites to a number of ERISA's statutory provisions. Count I is a claim for breach of fiduciary duty pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), while Count II alleges a failure to disclose plan information in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1024(b) brought pursuant to § 1132(c)(1)(B). See generally Doc. 32. Notably, the amended complaint is premised on a theory that the defendants failed to disclose crucial information, preventing the Lairds from making an informed decision regarding Mr. Laird's benefits, and does not allege that benefits were withheld according to the terms of the ...


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