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Miller v. City of Birmingham

Supreme Court of Alabama

April 21, 2017

Laura Miller
v.
City of Birmingham et al.

         Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-15-145)

          PARKER, Justice.

         Laura Miller appeals from a summary judgment entered by the Jefferson Circuit Court ("the circuit court") in favor of the City of Birmingham ("the City"), Sandy Roberts, and Alice Crutchfield (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the City defendants").

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Robert Jeffrey Miller, Mrs. Miller's husband, was employed by the City as a firefighter. Unum Life Insurance Company of America ("Unum") issued a group life and accidental death and dismemberment policy, identification number 293964 001, to the City on July 1, 2011 ("the policy"). The policy provided life-insurance benefits to eligible employees of the City. The policy itself has not been submitted into evidence; however, a summary of the benefits of the policy was submitted by Mrs. Miller. According to the summary of benefits, the policy included different life-insurance benefits for active employees and for retired employees. Under the policy, as an active employee, the City paid Mr. Miller's insurance premiums and Mr. Miller was entitled to a life-insurance benefit of $151, 000, a result reached by multiplying his annual earnings by 1.75. However, if Mr. Miller were to become a retiree, he would be required to pay his life-insurance premiums and would be entitled to only a $50, 000 life-insurance benefit. The summary of benefits also included the following provision:

          "What happens to your life insurance coverage if you become disabled? Your life insurance coverage may be continued for a specific time and your life insurance premium will be waived if you qualify as described below." The summary of benefits specified that, in order to be eligible for a waiver of the life-insurance premiums, the insured had to "be disabled through your elimination period, " which is nine months. The summary of benefits further stated:

"When will your life insurance premium waiver begin?
"....
"Your life insurance premium waiver will begin when we approve your claim, if the elimination period has ended and you meet the following conditions. Your Employer may continue premium payments until Unum notifies your Employer of the date your life insurance premium waiver begins.
"Your life insurance premium will be waived if you meet these conditions:
"you are less than 60 and insured under the plan.
"you become disabled and remain disabled during the elimination period.
"you meet the notice and proof of claim requirements for disability while your life insurance is in effect or within three months after it ends.
"your claim is approved by Unum.
"After we approve your claim, Unum does not require further premium payments for you while you remain disabled according to the terms and provisions of the plan.
"Your life insurance amount will not increase while your life insurance premiums are being waived. Your life insurance amount will reduce or cease at any time it would reduce or cease if you had not been disabled."

         In May 2012, Mr. Miller was diagnosed with brain cancer and soon became unable to perform the duties of his job. Mrs. Miller's affidavit states that when the Millers discovered that Mr. Miller's condition was terminal, they "sought to obtain information about [Mr. Miller's] life insurance benefit and all other benefits that might be available." The Millers did not have a copy of the policy or the summary of benefits at that time. On March 28, 2013, the Millers and Ed Bluemly, Mrs. Miller's brother-in-law, met with Sandy Roberts, the assistant benefit administrator and the pension coordinator for the Jefferson County Personnel Board, and Alice Crutchfield, a personnel technician for the Jefferson County Personnel Board, to learn about the benefits available to Mr. Miller. In her affidavit, Mrs. Miller states the following concerning that meeting:

"At that meeting, we were told that if [Mr. Miller] could not return to work, he would have to 'retire.' We wanted to know how we could keep his group life insurance. We were told by [Roberts and Crutchfield], without any hesitation, that the only option we had was to convert the life insurance to retiree life insurance. That meant that the life insurance level of coverage at $151, 000.00 would drop to $50, 000.00. We did not like this, but [Roberts and Crutchfield] were very clear and firm in their statements. They provided forms and indicated to me and [Mr. Miller] that [Mr. Miller] would have to sign the forms to convert the policy.
"[Mr. Miller] and I went over the forms and he signed them before leaving the meeting. ... However, [Roberts and Crutchfield] spoke very clearly as if they knew what they were doing and as if they were the authority on the subject for the City.
"I still wanted a copy of the policy or certificate, as did my brother-in-law, Ed Bluemly, and we both requested a copy of the policy. [Roberts and Crutchfield] told us there was not a copy of the policy or certificate. They could not obtain one, nor could they tell us how to obtain one."[1]

         Also concerning the March 28, 2013, meeting, Roberts's affidavit states that she "did hear ... Crutchfield referencing UNUM Life Insurance products and specifically telling [the Millers] that their life insurance policy was with Unum Insurance." Roberts's affidavit also states that she did not recall "any persons requesting a copy of an insurance plan from me during the meeting on or about March 28, 2013, nor do I recall any other person requesting an insurance plan from me on behalf of the Millers at any time after this meeting." Nothing in Roberts's affidavit disputed Mrs. Miller's and Bluemly's assertion that Roberts and Crutchfield told the Millers that they had to convert Mr. Miller's life insurance from active-employee to retiree life insurance. Crutchfield's affidavit states that, at the March 28, 2013, meeting, Crutchfield "referenced Unum Life Insurance beneficiary forms" and that no one "request[ed] a copy of a life insurance policy." Crutchfield's affidavit further states that, after the March 28, 2013, meeting, she "never had any discussions with [the Millers] concerning life insurance benefits and/or life insurance policies" and that the Millers never requested "any life insurance policy and/or certificate of insurance." Nothing in Crutchfield's affidavit disputed Mrs. Miller's assertion that Roberts and Crutchfield told the Millers that they had to convert Mr. Miller's life insurance from active-employee to retiree life insurance.

         After the meeting, the Millers continued to try to obtain a copy of the policy. To this end, the Millers asked several of Mr. Miller's coworkers if they had a copy of the policy and, if so, if they would share it with the Millers. On April 11, 2014, a coworker of Mr. Miller's gave Mrs. Miller a copy of "a supplemental group life policy" from Unum under which Mr. Miller's coworker had coverage; it is undisputed that that supplemental group life policy did not apply to Mr. Miller.

         On May 5, 2014, Mr. Miller died.

In November 2014, Mrs. Miller's attorney sent the City a letter requesting a copy of the policy. On November 24, 2014, Peggy Polk, director of the City's office of personnel, sent Mrs. Miller's attorney a letter and a copy of the summary of the benefits of the policy. The subject line of Polk's letter to Mrs. Miller's attorney stated: "Life Insurance Errors as to Robert [M]iller (Deceased)." Mrs. Miller's affidavit states that the letter from Polk was not received until "early December 2014." Mrs. Miller's affidavit states that, upon reviewing the summary of benefits, the Millers learned that the policy included "a disability waiver of premium benefit." Mrs. Miller's affidavit further states:
"It appears that [Mr. Miller] and I were misinformed by Sandy Roberts and Alice Crutchfield as to the existence of the disability waiver of premium benefit. This benefit would have saved us from having to pay for 'retiree life insurance' and [Mr. Miller] should have instead been able to keep the full policy benefit of $151, 000.00, at no cost to us, rather than just $50, 000.00."

         The City defendants do not dispute the accuracy of this portion of Mrs. Miller's affidavit.

         On January 16, 2015, Mrs. Miller filed a claim with the City alleging that Roberts and Crutchfield had been negligent in failing to inform the Millers "as to the existence of the disability waiver of premium benefit" and requesting $101, 000. In a letter to the City accompanying Mrs. Miller's claim, Mrs. Miller's attorney stated that Mrs. Miller "does not contend she will be damaged unless Unum refuses to undo or correct the issues involved in this matter." The letter also stated:

"We will be sending a copy of this also to Unum to request and demand that they pay the full life insurance proceeds which should have been paid, but for the incorrect information being provided [by Roberts and Crutchfield]. In any event, it appears to be prudent to provide this claim notwithstanding. We will be working with Unum to accomplish this and if this is not successful we will let the City of Birmingham know."

Unum denied Mrs. Miller's request; Unum was under no obligation to honor Mrs. Miller's request because Mr. Miller had voluntarily converted his life insurance to "retiree life insurance" and Unum acted accordingly.

         On May 4, 2015, Mrs. Miller sued the City defendants, alleging one claim of misrepresentation. The complaint alleged that the City defendants "made false representations as to material facts as to the amount of life insurance Mr. Miller was allowed to keep in place" and that "these representations were reckless, wanton, grossly negligent, and/or negligent." The complaint further alleged that Mrs. Miller "reasonably relied on these representations and had no evidence that the representations were false until after receiving a copy of the [policy] provided by [Polk] in December of 2014." Mrs. Miller requested, among other things, damages in the amount of $101, 000 "in lost life insurance proceeds."

         On January 20, 2016, the City defendants filed a motion for a summary judgment. The City defendants argued that they were entitled to a summary judgment because (1) Mrs. Miller's claim was barred both by the statute of limitations set forth in § 6-2-38, Ala. Code 1975, and by § 11-47-23, Ala. Code 1975, the notice-of-claim statute for municipalities, (2) the City is immune from Mrs. Miller's misrepresentation claim under § 11-47-190, Ala. Code 1975, (3) Mrs. Miller failed to add Unum, an allegedly indispensable party, which, the City defendants argued, deprived the circuit court of subject-matter jurisdiction, and (4) Unum is jointly liable with the City defendants and, thus, required to be joined as a party under § 11-47-191, Ala. Code 1975.

         At some point thereafter, Mrs. Miller filed notices of depositions of Roberts and Crutchfield. On January 29, 2016, the City defendants filed a "motion to quash" Mrs. Miller's notices of depositions of Roberts and Crutchfield. The sole basis for the City defendants' motion to quash the depositions was that Unum was an indispensable party under Rule 19. The City defendants also argued that Unum's absence from the action deprived the circuit court of subject-matter jurisdiction over Mrs. Miller's claim against them. Mrs. Miller filed a response to the City defendants' motion to quash.

         On February 27, 2016, Mrs. Miller filed a "motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability." Mrs. Miller argued that she had presented substantial evidence to support each element of her misrepresentation claim and that there was no genuine issue of material fact. In support of her summary-judgment motion, Mrs. Miller presented, among other things, a copy of the summary of benefits and several other documents concerning the policy, the affidavit of Bluemly, and Mrs. Miller's own affidavit.

         On March 4, 2016, the City defendants filed a motion to strike certain exhibits to Mrs. Miller's summary-judgment motion and references to those exhibits in the motion. Specifically, the City defendants argued that Mrs. Miller's summary-judgment motion contained facts that were not supported by specific references to Mrs. Miller's exhibits. The City defendants requested that the circuit court strike the following portions of Mrs. Miller's brief in support of her summary-judgment motion and the following evidence she submitted in support of her summary-judgment motion:

"(1) strike all unsupported allegations of [Mrs. Miller's] Brief or instruct [Mrs. Miller] to resubmit the brief in compliance with Rule 56(c)(1)[, Ala. R. Civ. P.]; (2) exclude all UNUM insurance documents constituting hearsay ([Mrs. Miller's] Exhibit D & F)[2]; (3) exclude the Bluemly Affidavit ([Mrs. Miller's] Exhibit C) as impermissible hearsay; and (4) exclude all portions of [Mrs.] Miller['s] Affidavit ([Mrs. Miller's] Exhibit B) that are not based on personal knowledge or admissible evidence."[3]

         The City defendants identified the following specific portions of Mrs. Miller's affidavit they sought to strike:

"I still wanted a copy of the policy or certificate, as did my brother-in-law, Ed Bluemly, and we both requested a copy of the policy. ...
"....
"... Finally, less than 30 days before Jeffrey died, a fellow battalion friend of Jeffery's named Buddy logged into his computer and found a supplemental group life policy .... [H]e claimed he obtained a copy off his computer at work and then e-mailed it to his wife and then his wife e-mailed it to me. I am not saying that I was there when his friend obtained a copy from the computer at work, nor was I there when his wife, Sabrina, e-mailed the document to me. ...
"I do not know too much about policies, but my brother-in-law, Ed Bluemly, does and I let him look it over. He assured me that his was not the correct policy, as it did not have the correct terms and information. ..."

         On March 7, 2016, Mrs. Miller responded to the City defendants' summary-judgment motion. Mrs. Miller argued that she had asserted her claim within the applicable statutory limitations period and that the City defendants were barred by the doctrine of equitable estoppel from asserting that § 11-47-23 barred her misrepresentation claim. Mrs. Miller also argued that Unum is not an indispensable party under Rule 19, Ala. R. Civ. P. Mrs. Miller attached to her response most of the same exhibits that she had submitted in support of her motion for a partial summary judgment. Further, Mrs. Miller presented a Rule 56(f), Ala. R. Civ. P., ...


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